22 min read

Working With Emotional Triggers (A Full Guide)

Working with emotional triggers is the act of soothing your nervous system so you can address what's happening right now for what it is. A potential problem. Nothing more, nothing less. 
Working With Emotional Triggers (A Full Guide)
Photo by Jonathan Borba

By and far the #1 request I get from clients & subscribers alike is support with working with triggers.

Today is the day I make it public. And we’ll make this part as simple, direct, and painless as possible.

Bookmark this. Put it on the home screen of your phone for reference. Leave your comments below with any follow up questions & I’ve got you on updates. This is important.

We're going to dive right in. You can watch the video or read the article below. They're not exactly the same so I honestly recommend doing both.

To work with your triggers you have to understand the nature of them. And it starts with this...

Being Triggered Isn’t the Same Thing As Being Upset

When we’re upset, it’s because an upsetting thing has happened. Now we’re experiencing an appropriate level of upset feelings about it.

Being triggered is what happens when an event or stimuli has literally triggered our nervous system into perceiving a threat to our immediate personal safety.

Our nervous system's job is to alert us of danger. So when we're triggered, our body believes we’re in immediate danger. Then, without asking questions, it takes the wheel to protect us accordingly - with or without our permission.

This sends us into a physiological fight, flight, freeze, or appease response. Our hormone levels (like adrenaline) adjust to protect us from perceived threat. Our behavior follows this direction from our body.

Something to really understand: the triggers aren’t always loud, nor are the responses.

Both can be subtle, and we aren't even always discernibly "upset" or "afraid". The smell of perfume can trigger someone to abruptly leave the room without either person being the wiser for what just happened. And that's not an exaggeration.

Regardless of how loud or quiet the trigger and response are, one thing is true across the board:

Our nervous system senses danger not because of what's happening in front of us. It's because of something called an implicit memory.

How Triggers Work

Triggers are a function of our body’s implicit memory. Let me explain.

Explicit memory is the kind of memory we all know and love. We remember the audio and visual of what's happening outside of us. We express this memory by speaking on it.

i.e. “Dinner last night was so good.”

Implicit memory is the body’s memory of what happened inside of us. But the body speaks a different language. The language of physical sensation.

So instead of talking, the body expresses an implicit memory by reacting to it as if the event is happening in real time.

i.e. Thinking about dinner makes your mouth salivate. 

The salivation is the expression of the implicit memory. As in, your body itself is remembering what it experienced by reliving it in real time.

When we’re triggered, what that means is a cue in the current day triggers an implicit memory. And we involuntarily relive the memory through our bodies in real time.

Like when your partner hears your tone change and suddenly they’re defensive?

You’re just tired, not trying to fight. But your tone triggers an implicit memory of whatever event it reminded their nervous system of. The issue, and this happens all the time, is that they might not know their nervous system all like that. They're not aware of their triggers. They might not know how to discern between the two jus yet. It's like salivating over dinner. Automatic. Possibly unconscious.

That example right there happens all the time, among about a million other relational triggers, large and small, that we don't even notice.

If we want to heal, regulate, find more peace with ourselves, our relationships with others, and our lives, we have to learn to put the past where it belongs.

We have to learn to regulate our shit and heal it.

A Comprehensive Guide to Working with Emotional Triggers

Emotional triggers are involuntary but that doesn’t mean we can’t catch and regulate them. We struggle to for a few reasons, including but not limited to:

  • We’re not aware of the warning signs and when we start to become dysregulated
  • We try to regulate when we do notice, but they overwhelm us and we can't control it
  • We’re in environments that are heavily triggering and it’s impossible to keep up. We don’t have the capacity to heal in the same environment that’s hurting us. (Do what you can to regulate and heal while you're there but the #1 goal in this case is to get out for now. Come back later with your new tools and healed nervous system if you have unfinished business).

Anyway, here’s how to work with your triggers.

Step 1: The Art of Noticing & Naming

You know how some people are aware of everything happening around them? They notice the slightest change in tone, behavior patterns, speech patterns, etc?

Being aware of everything around us to try to control our external environment is exhausting and, largely, fruitless.

But turning that energy inward to become more aware of ourselves can be a helpful step on the way to regulation. Mainly because we are in control of our own regulation, behavior, and even beliefs IF we build the skills to be.

First, this requires us to notice and name what’s happening. 

And no, I'm not saying to be anxiously hyper aware or anything.

What I mean is this:

Let’s say when you’re triggered by your partner you normally enter a fight response. This could mean getting passive aggressive, defensive, arguing, lashing out, etc.

Either way you flip it, you experience an overwhelming urge to fight for your needs as if your life depends on it (even if it doesn't actually depend on it). This is the fight response. 

Though this can seem instantaneous, chances are there are warning signs before you reach that point. Possibly way earlier in the day before the event even occurs.

This is why we’ll have a “tough day at work”, push through it, and then when we get home suddenly we’re more irritable. Our loved ones take this personally. Thinking it's intentional or that we think of them as weak. Oftentimes it’s actually that something at work triggered us, and our nervous systems knows we’re not safe to express the fight response until we’re in a different environment. The safer environment is often, home.

It doesn't make it okay, but understanding what's actually happening is helpful to fix it.

And my ultimate point to doing that is this: triggers may seem fast, but there is often a window of time to catch them. Catching the activation in the beginning is a pro move and a fundamental first step before regulation.

Because as the saying goes, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that it’s there in the first place. 

So the sooner you can notice the subtle signs:

  • your own breathing start to quicken
  • your tone start to change
  • the tension in your chest
  • your hands get sweaty
  • your body start to tremble
  • or whatever the signs are for you - the better.

This puts you ahead of the curve. In this position you can proactively manage the trigger instead of letting it get ahead of you, at which point it feels mountainous to calm it down.

So whatever your response is, get familiar with it. Start paying attention to what you’re feeling and experiencing in your own body before the point of no return.

Here’s a short list of the types of awareness you need to catch and regulate your triggers.

Keep in mind you don't need to be skilled at all of these to do this. Just start where you can and build from there.

Type 1: Body Awareness

Pay attention to physical sensations like a racing heart, clenched muscles, or a pit in your stomach.

Also notice how you’re moving. When I feel even slightly activated I may start yawning as a warning of shut down. On the other hand, I may spontaneously get up and need to move or pace as a signal that I’m activated in a different way.

Remember, these can be subtle signs that an emotional trigger is coming up without us even noticing it. And this all happens on autopilot so it’s important to pay attention to yourself. Self awareness is key.

Type 2: Emotional Awareness

Tune into your emotions. If you suddenly feel an intense rise or pang in anger, fear, sadness, or any strong emotion that seems really big for the situation at hand, you're triggered. 

Type 3: Thought Pattern Awareness 

Our thought patterns change when we become dysregulated.

Regulated thought patterns are present, in the moment, and looking at the moment for what it is. They also tend to be more curious. "His tone changed. I wonder if he's feeling alright."

Dysregulated thought patterns aren’t like that. They’re more extreme, alerting, and extrapolating in nature.

Notice if you find yourself making assumptions or jumping to conclusions.

Are your thoughts anxious and "what iffy" in nature? Is your mind feeling foggy or going blank all of a sudden?

Struggling to pay attention? Are you fixated on one thing that alarmed you versus being able to take in the whole situation?

These are your signs that something's off and you're becoming a little dysregulated.

When you notice it, take a moment to name and acknowledge it for what it is. 

Acknowledging that you’re triggered doesn’t mean that the situation in front of you isn’t a problem. It just means you’re noticing that you’re not in danger from this problem.

Your body is perceiving this as a threat to your actual safety. That’s why your survival responses have been activated. But for it to be a trigger means it’s not actually a threat to your safety. Because contrary to what it may seem right now, not all problems in life are threats to our personal safetyAnd we become more effective at solving them when we stop treating them as such.

So, naming it as a trigger helps us discern between problems and threats.

It’s not to invalidate the problem you have with whatever you’re responding to. And it’s not to say there’s not something to be addressed.

It’s the act of soothing your nervous system so you can address it for what it is. A problem. Nothing more, nothing less. 

And I know that meditation has been taught all wrong, but it’s actually helpful for exactly this kind of awareness if you think about it the right way. For help with this check out this article below:

What They Don’t Tell You About Meditation
The point isn’t to empty your mind. It’s to observe it. Here’s how.

Step 2: Get to Safety and Ground Yourself

Once you've recognized that you're on the verge of getting triggered...

Or even if you’re a little late and already there (it happens)...

It's essential to get your actual, physical body to safety and ground it.

Even if you cognitively know you’re not in danger, the whole point of a trigger is that your body doesn’t know that. Or it may not agree with you. Your body is living in the past, and that implicit memory is a strong pull for survival. One of the strongest we have.

So even if one part of you understands that your partner’s just pissing you off right now (or whatever), that's not the point.

If it’s still causing you to blow up at them, shut down, or otherwise sabotage your relationship, that’s your body choosing to create safety for you in its own way. It will do this without your permission or informed consent. This is called "limbic hijack".

And to be clear, when it comes to relational triggers, your body doesn’t really give a shit who it is most of the time. 

It will sacrifice the mutual emotional safety of just about any relationship in your life to create whatever it perceives as personal safety in the space of personal threat.

Including your children, unfortunately. That’s much of the reason why we sabotage our relationships so much to begin with. It’s much of the reason why we scar our children and lose our tempers, why we lose empathy, try to control, or avoid connecting with people in moments when the connection would actually be the mutual, healthy solution.

The way you overcome this is counterintuitive: listen to your body’s warning signs that it doesn’t feel safe to begin with.

Build a relationship with your body where it trusts your thinking mind to consider it's felt sense of threat. Then it will hijack you less often.

The key here is to heed the warning and take proactive care of your nervous system in the healthiest way possible for your relationship as well. This protects you and them.

With practice, you can make your new automatic response that of getting to conscious safety, where you're not sabotaging relationships, but you're still honoring your system and what's coming up for you. Getting to safety is whatever that means for you (ideas below). Then you ground yourself.

Communicate first if you need to. Have a script handy like “I’m feeling dysregulated. I love you so I'm going to calm down before I say anything else that might suggest otherwise and I’ll be back,” or whatever's applicable for your situation.

Here are Some Quick Ideas for Grounding & Safety

Pump the Physiological Brakes

When you’re activated your physiology responds accordingly. We talk about adrenaline & cortisol a lot, but we don’t talk enough about heart rate - the central line for the trauma response.

Your heart speeds up when activated, but it can only beat as slow or as fast as your breath allows it to. The slower your breath, the slower your heart rate. This is why the whole “take slow deep breaths and count to 10” actually works - but nobody explained it that way.

Truth is, breath is crucial.

When you’re feeling activated, taking slow, deep breaths can force your heart to slow. A slow heartbeat tells the rest of your physical body you’re safe. Because when we’re in danger, our breathing is supposed to speed up to get us to jump into action.

Basically the body's version of hacking the algorithm. We’re disrupting the limbic hijack by zeroing in on breath. Use it.

Physical Safety

If the situation feels unsafe or overwhelming, whether it is or not, notice that and remove yourself from it. Even if for just a moment or two. Even if it’s not actually dangerous, it’s okay to just give your body a break for a few until it catches up to the truth. Find a quiet, secure place where you can process your emotions without external distractions.

This can also be done by changing how you’re physically reacting in the environment. If an argument is ensuing and you’re both standing up, and as you seek safety something says “just sit down and take your breaths, you’re not actually in danger”, it’s worthwhile to trust that. Remember to communicate using the script above if it helps.

Grounding Techniques

When people say "grounding techniques'', they basically mean anything that brings you back to the present moment. Since your body is reliving something from the past, it helps for grounding to have a physical component.

My personal favorite grounding exercise is stupid fucking simple and not fancy at all. I made it up myself and frankly I think it's the best one out there.

I notice the physical evidence around me that I'm safe right now, while reminding myself cognitively that I'm safe right now at this moment. I breathe slowly while I do it. That's it.

I literally look around at my environment, notice the evidence that I’m safe: 

  • I'm alive. 
  • I'm in one piece. 
  • I've got all my limbs. 
  • No one is attacking me. 
  • I'm just having a hard time right now & that's okay, I can handle hard times. 
  • I pump the brakes on breath, repeat “you’re safe” to myself, and just stay with that until my heart rate slows.

It only takes a few seconds. It works every time, and fast. And I don't have to remember some weird steps on YouTube about finding 3 things that are blue.

This approach is direct. Relevant. It gets me back in touch with myself. It brings my rational brain back online because I’m practicing relevant, rational thinking for the situation at hand.

It works. There's no need to overcomplicate it if it works for you, too.

But there are about a million other grounding exercises all over the internet if you want to do a Google search.

Choose Your Own Adventure

A lot of the time we’ll stop after this step and get back into the moment. Especially if we’re in the middle of something. Life is moving and we tend to move with it the majority of the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can skip to step 4 to do that.

But if this trigger is really messing with you or it's frequent, you’ll want to dig up a bit and gain some more perspective. This helps with long-term, sustainable healing so you can stop being triggered to begin with.

Step 3: Trace the Trigger Back

Now, remember I said emotional triggers often have roots in past wounds or traumatic experiences. To address them effectively and for the long term, one of the things you need to do is trace them back.

We do this to understand where it's coming from and really get to know the nature of the trigger & response that we’re working with. 

“But Tori, I thought we had to feel it to heal it!”

Yes, kinda. And I’ll get to that in a minute. But a big thing about human beings is that we have to make sense of our lives in order to manage them and feel safe in them. Feeling it doesn’t give us that.

And that’s where I think a lot of people who are about only feeling are in denial. Yes we have our emotions for a reason and we've neglected them en mass. But we also have the gift of rational thinking for a reason. Because we need to use both.

Therefore, my belief is that there is a cognitive component to healing for most of us, and especially for those of us who live in our heads anyway. This is in addition to the emotional component of healing.

If you want to just feel it you're free to skip this part. But if understanding it feels relevant and helpful, work this step to trace your triggers back.

Disclaimer: I use lighthearted examples in this piece but realistically you never know what's going to come up. I'm a big believer that our subconscious doesn't give us more than we can handle, but this could be heavy. Have a number to dial and some aftercare planned before practicing this on your own.

In the meantime you're welcome to read through to get the gist of the process.

Okay, let’s get started with the action steps.

Put On Your Detective Hat

Tracing triggers is detective work. It can help for the cognitive piece to think of it as kind of a “game” in this way instead of making it too personal or heavy (if you can). You can feel the heaviness later. Compartmentalization is a tool for a reason, too.

Anyway, we're detectives now and we're looking for clues. The mystery we're solving is "Why did this non-threatening situation send me spinning" (or whatever).

The basic premise is to connect the past with the present. Because there's a link between the two. An invisible string attaching the present trigger with a past implicit memory that came up in your body.

We have to find where the implicit memory is coming from and see why it's fucking with us today.

And here's the thing that's deeply important to understand about your role as the lead detective in your own work.

You'll know when you find it when it feels true to you

True to that detective "gut instinct" we hear about, your body and mind will align and it'll just click. You'll see the full picture fit into place. You'll find your "smoking gun" or whatever. The case will close. You’ll sigh a sigh of relief that the mystery is solved. Until that moment comes your work isn’t done.

On the way to that point you’ll be presented with theories, like detectives often are.

Plenty of theories will make sense or be a good guess. But only you will know the answer when it hits because it feels right. You understand?

That's the moment you're looking for.

When we’re doing this work with clients I will keep a close track of what feels right for them. Even if I offer a suggestion or theory, I’m careful to remind them my theories don’t actually matter. What matters is what feels true for them.

So any time you're presented with a theory, ask yourself, "does this feel true?" often.  And if it feels like something is still missing, or off, it's okay to stay curious.

With this clarity of focus in mind, get started by getting curious.

Get Curious

Curiosity is open, not leading. It's a student. It allows the answer to come to it. It’s willing to be surprised and proven wrong. It doesn’t have an agenda other than to learn the truth. And it understands the difference between a hypothesis and an assumption. Keep this in mind.

Now, one of my go-to questions to start with is ”when’s the first time you remember feeling this way?” (The way you felt when you were triggered).

Free-writing or journaling the answer to the question, including about how you felt during the original event, can be helpful too. Do an audio journal if paper journaling doesn’t work. But journaling gives you a chance to read it over and see what correlations come up for you.

Observing yourself is a practice of self awareness, no matter what tools you use to do it.

It’s important to know that the story it leads to doesn’t have to match up perfectly or make sense in the beginning.

Everything is information. Everything is a clue. Your body is giving it to you for a reason and what comes up for you when you face it is also there for a reason. Practice trusting that all of it belongs in the evidence pile even if you don't know why yet. I can almost promise you it does.

I’ve had clients start with stress at a corporate job and somehow we end up all the way back when they’re 9 years old at Disneyland.  

Or we’ll start with a dispute with a neighbor and suddenly they're talking about their 6th Grade English teacher. 

Whatever comes up for you might seem weird, or it could be a clearly traumatic event that you don’t question, to be honest. But I’ve learned through this work that no matter what comes up, it’s coming up for a reason.

So as long as it doesn’t get too intense, stay curious about it, ask open questions for the sake of learning, and look for connections. That’s all. It’ll click when it’s time.

These end up being the moments we discover things like, “Oh shit. When my boss gives me feedback on my performance I feel the same way I felt when my Dad scolded me at Disneyland in front of my friends. He told me I was a failure for losing the game! Did that really impact me that badly?”

Apparently it did, love. Your inner child is telling you it needs healing when your boss gives you feedback.

And of course you didn't realize it. Who would without this education on how triggers work? As a cognizant adult you have way too much mature context to think that experience would affect you this way. 

It seems like such a small thing now that you’re older and understand he didn’t mean anything by it, that he was just joking, trying to push you, or was just stressed. But your body, where that trigger lives, has no fucking idea. The child body you had back then physically internalized that shame, and it haunted you into adulthood.

That’s how triggers work.

These realizations alone can be tremendously helpful and alleviating for us when we apply them to the current event.  They can instantly put it into perspective and relax our nervous system for today. We can discern, Oh! That’s what my body is reacting to, not this! And it’s so incredibly powerful for helping us maintain clarity in the moment.

We might need to have a talk with Dad now. Be prepared for that. But as far as the triggering event? We’re way closer to resolving it now for what it actually is. 

Tracing is Hard for All of Us And We All Need Support.

You’re Not Special.

Let’s be real, if self awareness was easy work, everyone would do it. The world would be a much more peaceful place.

The truth is, a lot of the time we’ll try to trace it back, but we'll struggle to see the big picture. We'll struggle to see how the dots connect. Or the stuff that comes up feels too intense to handle alone.

This happens to me. I kick it with a bunch of social workers and therapist. This happens to them. We help each other. I’m in therapy and my therapist is constantly calling me on my shit and catching my blind spots. We laugh about how it’s so hard to see your own stuff compared to other peoples’ in this work.

It’s good to know how to do this for yourself because you will get better at it over time. Bu this kind of clarity is seldom easy to find alone. Especially for the big stuff that’s really impacting us. 

This is because the nature of our trauma is slippery and elusive by design. Its roots are exactly that, roots. Meaning they’re tangled beneath the surface of our conscious mind. Pulling them up, exposing them, can be painful, and our body's job is to protect us from that pain.

"80% of the therapist's work is working with denial" - Linda Thai, LMSW, ERYT-200, CLYL (quoting someone else)

In my experience, there are times when the nervous system simply won't let us find what we're looking for until some prerequisites are met.

Until it believes we're supported, safe, and ready to handle it.

I'm not kidding. You may notice your executive dysfunction or ADHD kick up a notch even just reading this article. A sign your nervous system is getting a little nervous about the prospect of being uncovered.

Because of this it helps to have a therapist, coach, or a friend to support you through this. I genuinely believe healing happens in community.

We need several layers of support to do this work.

Regardless of who you enlist for the role, choose someone who’s:

  • Deeply empathetic
  • A good listener
  • Never shaming
  • Knows how to set their personal judgments and bias aside
  • Curious (as described above)
  • And is good with helping you regulate.

Also make sure they’re someone who can point out some correlations you might be missing to guide you along.

But I seriously can’t overstate that the most important thing is to choose someone you feel safe enough with at a nervous system level.

Someone who won’t judge you or laugh that you’re carrying some shit Daddy said that seems small to you. Someone who can understand why it would be big for a child and point that out to you so you can stop shaming and judging yourself.

Someone who won’t reinforce your shame, but they will help you carry it and alleviate it.

Talk to people who understand Developmental Trauma, trauma-informed care, and won’t try to control your process so much as guide it.

This is sensitive work and it requires sensitive hearts and minds to walk alongside us as we do it.

If you don’t have anyone around you who can do that, it’s worth hiring some support. Even if you do have people around you it’s worth hiring support. Because then you have one person whose whole job is to play this role, where the rest of our loved ones will step - and sometimes misstep - their way in & out of it casually.  

Regardless, you’ll make progress a hell of a lot faster with the right people in your corner than doing it on your own. 

It’s also safer, frankly. And your body knows it, which is why we so often reach a plateau on our progress doing it alone.

Step 4: What Belongs in the Past? What Belongs in the Present?

Once we realize we're actually safe, just triggered, we can start to put the past where it belongs and focus on he present moment.

“All those big emotions are actually for Daddy! Not my boss!"

Or even, "this is triggering an abandonment wound for me, but I know that they're not saying they're leaving right now. I'm safe."

And your boss’s feedback? (or the situation at hand)

It still might be annoying. Offensive. Perhaps a little worrisome. It still may be a problem for you.

But having this new perspective helps you see the bigger picture. For the work example, it can help you see that your boss is really just trying to support you the best way they know how. And they’ve got a job to do. They’re trying to do that, too. Can you blame them if giving feedback is a part of that? No. 

This is soothing for the nervous system and helps you realize things like “they're not saying I'm a failure” and “no seriously, I’m really not in danger.”

What a relief.

Step 5: Address What's for the Present Once You're Grounded & Clear

Now that you have a more regulated take on the present moment you can decide how you want to address it.

Sticking with the work example, we talk to bossy pants about how they can give us feedback in a way that would be helpful for us. We can ask clarifying questions for what they really mean. We can ask for some training if there’s an issue.

We can work with them toward resolve now that our nervous system realizes they’re not threatening our safety.

When we’re not in survival mode, we can be in growth mode.

We can focus more on collaboration and sustainable solutions, which helps us move forward and grow as individuals and together in relationships of all kinds.

Now we have hope about bringing closure to this situation out in a healthy way, and we get to be participating members in that since we're not drowning in the implicit memory of our trauma while doing it.

Step 6: It’s True, You Do Have to Feel It to Heal It 

Healing our emotional and relational wounds involves two parts:

The cognitive piece: Reading & rewriting the stories of the past. Which helps us rewrite the stories of the present. Which helps us rewrite our assumptions and expectations in the present. This helps regulate the nervous system so we won’t be as triggered.

But that's all just one part lol.

The somatic piece: “Somatic” is basically body work. This is the part that works with the root, which is the implicit memory. 

To heal this, we have to be given a safe space to feel the past experience in full by choice (choice is important). Then we’re able to metabolize those old, pent up emotions to get them out of the body.

The old emotions will continue to trigger the old story. This is a part of how your nervous systems gets your body in alignment for survival. Being aware of the old story is one great step for regulation. But for healing? That happens at the root.

This can be done over time with somatic practices. Two popular ones are EMDR & Somatic Experiencing. Both of which I do recommend looking into. It is dangerous to self-administer these. 

Somatic Parts Work is another really great one for both somatic and cognitive work, and it’s safe enough to develop a self-practice around the majority of it. This is one I routinely support my clients with. It’s really engaging, beautiful for self awareness, self love, and somatic healing and regulation. It is my personal favorite, especially when paired with EMDR which speeds up the process.

Remember that healing is a journey, and it happens in community.

Yes, we can get a lot done alone, but I encourage you to reach out for support with this when it feels like it’s time to.

Don’t second guess yourself on that. If something in you is saying you need help, your body knows what it’s talking about. A part of healing is learning to listen to it.

Take your time, do your due diligence, but work towards listening to it for sure.

Rooting for You,