Emotional triggers are stimuli that can at times provoke an automatic, intense and excessive emotional reaction within us.
Triggers include people, words, memories, intrusive thoughts, opinions, behaviors or other specific personal situations.
Emotional triggers can set off a wide range of feelings. On the one hand, triggers may engender feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame, fear or panic. People may experience these feelings in their bodies, often characterized by headaches or feeling a knot in their throat or stomach. Others externalize their emotions by, for example, arguing with a coworker or a family member or cutting off a driver, road rage.
On the other hand, triggers may induce people to feel happy, excited, joyful, proud or pleasantly surprised. These stimuli can elicit a positive mindset and induce a sense of optimism.
The same trigger can induce different reactions in different people. We are not all the same, whether genetically or in temperament or personal history, and the way we process the same event or trigger is very much dependent on these differences.
Below, I provide some examples of emotional triggers and of how they affect our lives, for better or for worse.
Unconscious emotional triggers
Sam, a 26-year-old hi-tech marketing candidate for a job interview, begins to sweat profusely before his interview. His heart beat speeds up, and he feels like he is about to have an anxiety attack.
While it is normal for most people to have anxiety before a job interview, this is the third interview Sam has had in a month, and each time he is overwhelmed by severe anxiety symptoms. Why is Sam having so much difficulty?
In therapy, it was revealed that Sam’s narcissistic father often made fun of Sam’s capabilities. He constantly belittled his son. The interview situation emotionally triggered Sam, which brought up very old and painful feelings of humiliation and ridicule. When Sam came to therapy, he was unaware of the negative effect that his father had on him.
Judy and Allan, in their 40s, have been married for 15 years. They have three children and are both successful lawyers. Allan is a moody guy, and he is particularly offended when his wife tells him to run errands. He is triggered and always gets into a fight with Judy whenever she makes even small requests.
Why is Allan so easily triggered by his wife’s innocuous requests? Judy insisted that they come in for some couples counseling.
What was revealed in our sessions was that throughout his childhood, Allan’s mother was dominant and aggressive toward his father. His father was passive and suffered from depression. Allan suffered quietly and couldn’t stand seeing his father being bossed around.
For Allan, his wife, who was far from a bossy type of person, would trigger his grouchy response. Envisioning the dynamic between his mother and father, he was projecting onto his wife old angry feelings that he had repressed while growing up. Allan was helped to understand his feelings and was able to change his behavior toward Judy.
Trauma and trigger avoidance
Many years ago, Josh was standing close to a bus stop in Jerusalem when a terrorist bomb exploded. Many people were wounded and killed. Since that time, Josh has been unable to take public transportation and has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
A central part of the coping mechanism of people suffering with PTSD is the avoidance mechanism. People with trauma and PTSD are hypervigilant about any cues or reminders of their initial trauma, and use avoidant behavior to prevent themselves from being emotionally re-triggered.
Addictive disorders and trigger risk
Sarah is a single 55-year-old woman who lives by herself and is successfully employed. For most of her adult life, she has struggled to overcome her eating disorder. For the past several years, she has been attending an Overeaters Anonymous group, taking psychotropic medicine and participating in weekly cognitive-behavioral therapy to help her keep her binge eating disorder in check.
For Sarah, just going into a supermarket and going down the candy aisle can trigger a strong craving to binge on sweets.
She understands her vulnerability and has to safeguard this every day by preparing her food plan each morning and carefully sticking to it.
In the addiction treatment field, a hallmark of good therapy is to teach clients how to identify the people, places and things that can trigger cravings and lead to a slip or relapse.
For Sarah, becoming aware of these triggers and learning how to cope with them was a critical underpinning of her treatment.
My late mother-in-law lived alone and often felt lonely and sad. In order to help herself, she would take out family photo albums. She could easily spend hours looking at pictures and reminiscing. These visual memories would always make her feel happy and less lonely.
Listening to my favorite musician or hearing my favorite song is a positive trigger for me and always puts a smile on my face.
Holiday triggers: Not the same for everyone
For many people, planning a get-together on holidays, meeting up with their family members or friends, can trigger happy feelings of joy. But for others, holidays may be associated with bad memories, perhaps an unhappy childhood or negative family experiences, thereby triggering unhappy feelings.
FROM THE above examples, one can see that emotional triggers are always around, and that there are many different factors that influence the way we respond to them. Some of these emotional triggers make us feel good, while others can threaten us and make us feel bad.
Understanding the triggers and how they affect us is a vital coping tool, and can help us live happier lives.
In Part II, I will address the issue of how to cope with emotional triggers.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist and consultant with offices in Ra’anana and Jerusalem, and also conducts sessions online. www.facebook.com/drmikegropper; [email protected]