Identifying your emotional triggers is so vital because without bringing to consciousness what provokes extreme responses from you, you’ll be a puppet constantly manipulated by your emotions. Your friendships will be strained or ruined, your relationships will be turbulent or sabotaged, and your life, in general, will be much more painful.
It really is worth putting in the effort to explore your emotional triggers.
The more aware you are, the less you will be ruled by the unconscious forces within you. And it’s not even that difficult to explore your triggers. The hardest part is actually to commit to the process.
So with that being said, here are some simple ways to identify your “hot buttons”:
1. Pay attention to your bodily reactions
Notice any tensing of muscles, increased heart rate, hot or cold flushes, tingles, or any physical change that generally indicates contraction (or physically recoiling from what you’re experiencing). Turn it into a game: what is the first reaction your body has? Do your fists clench? Does your breathing accelerate? Does your face turn hot? Mentally note these reactions and even write them down to journal about. Remember that physical reactions can be subtle all the way to an extreme – so don’t rule out anything.
2. Notice what thoughts fire through your head
Look for extreme thoughts with polarized viewpoints (i.e. someone or something is good/bad, right/wrong, nice/evil, etc.). You don’t have to do anything else but be aware of these thoughts without reacting to them. Let them play out in your mind. What story is your mind creating about the other person or situation? I recommend simply listing these thoughts in your journal to enhance your self-awareness.
3. Who or what triggered the emotion?
Once you have become aware of your physical reactions (or in conjunction with this practice), notice who or what has triggered the extreme physical and emotional responses within you. Sometimes you will discover a single object, word, smell or another sense-impression that triggers you. Other times, you will notice that you are triggered by a certain belief, viewpoint, or overall situation. For example, your trigger could range from anything like loud noises to men who are overly dominating and opinionated. Not only that, but you may have a whole series of triggers (most people do), so be vigilant and open to perceiving a whole spectrum of things that set you off. As always, it’s important that your record these triggers in some kind of journal (whether a printed one or a digital one). Writing down these triggers will help to sear them into your mind so that you remain self-aware in the future.
4. What happened before you were triggered?
Sometimes there are certain “prerequisites” to being triggered, for example, having a stressful day at work, waking up “on the wrong side of the bed,” going to a certain uncomfortable place (like the mall), listening to the kids fight – virtually anything could set the stage for being triggered later on. When you are trying to identify your emotional triggers, often you can prevent yourself from being triggered in the future simply by slowing down once you’re aware of the trigger prerequisites.
5. What needs of yours were not being met?
Being emotionally triggered always goes back to not having one or more of our deepest needs/desires met. Take some time to think about which of your needs or desires are being threatened:
- Being liked
- Being needed
- Being right
- Being valued
- Being treated fairly
- Being in control
Reflect on what unmet needs/desires are constantly reappearing.
Looking out for and becoming aware of your body, thoughts, unmet needs/desires, and certain people or situations that set you off will help to prevent you from ‘acting out’ your emotions later.
What to Do Once You’ve Been Emotionally Triggered
Above I explored how to prevent yourself from being triggered … but what happens once you’ve already had a knee-jerk response to someone or something?
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There are a number of things you can do when you’re buried deep in extreme emotions like anger or fear.
Here is what I practice and recommend:
1. Remove your attention from the person or situation and focus on your breath.
So long as you’re alive, your breath is always there with you – it is solid and trustworthy, and therefore it is an excellent way to relax. Keep focusing on your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes. If your attention goes back to the triggering person or situation, pull your attention back to your breathing.