Emotional Triggers: How To Identify, Understand, And Deal With Yours

Disclosure: this page may contain affiliate links to select partners. We receive a commission should you choose to make a purchase after clicking on them. Read our affiliate disclosure.

Do you struggle with finding peace and happiness?

Quite a few people do.

The world is filled with people who are deeply unhappy and constantly searching for a way to bring some light into their lives.

The news and social media amplify the dark and terrible sides of humanity and life is hard for a lot of people.

An important part of finding your peace and happiness is understanding why you feel the way that you do and learning to control the way you respond to the world.

Many people spend their time agonizing over things that are entirely out of their control. Or, as Epictetus so eloquently put it…

People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.

The common language now used to refer to any event that invokes an emotion is “emotional trigger” or “trigger” – and that’s unfortunate.

It’s unfortunate because the word trigger, in the context of mental and emotional health, used to refer to a situation or circumstance that would cause a seriously disruptive event in a person with a mental illness, disorder, or other dysfunction.

Instead, it’s been co-opted by mainstream society to refer to any uncomfortable emotions a person might experience.

This makes it significantly more difficult for people with anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and other mental illnesses or dysfunctions featuring triggers to be taken seriously.

You’ve probably heard someone say something like, “Why are you so triggered?” in response to being angry.

Let’s look at a simple, but not easy, process for identifying, understanding, and conquering triggers.

1. You’re going to want a notebook or journal to work out of.

The first step is to acquire a notebook or journal. It’s always a better idea to write by hand when you journal for mental health because it provides a better therapeutic effect than typing.

The act of writing is slower, which gives you more time to really think and process as you are working to express what you’re feeling and why.

You will likely go back to and add to your journal as time goes on and you work through things. Do make sure it’s in a safe place or that people who do not respect your privacy cannot find it.

2. Identify emotional triggers by looking at volatile times of your life.

The best place to start looking for emotional triggers is around the most volatile, difficult, and painful times of your life.

After all, the emotions associated with those circumstances are typically borne from the event that you experienced.

In recounting the event to yourself, you’ll want to make notes about what emotions you were feeling before, during, and after the event.

The same system can equally apply to looking for mental illness triggers.

3. Identify your passionately held beliefs or ideals.

Develop a list of your beliefs and ideals, then look to answer the why behind those emotions.

Why do you believe what you do? Why do you feel what you do?

An answer of, “Well, that’s just what I believe” really isn’t helpful or what you’re looking for.

Beliefs and ideals are often driven by emotion or circumstance, like political views being formulated through the way a person experiences and feels about life.

Articulating why you feel the way that you do will give you greater clarity on your emotional landscape and more insight into what triggers your emotions.

You may also like (article continues below):

4. Identify and describe the smaller emotional beliefs that you hold.

What annoys you? What brings you contentment? What bothers you? What brings you happiness?

The focus in this section is to identify and explore the smaller emotions that help make you who you are so you can develop a clear, encompassing picture of your own emotional landscape.

In understanding those smaller components, you may find that they help feed into your overall perspectives and emotional reactions to a given situation.

5. Begin to ask yourself “why” when you experience an emotional reaction.

An interesting observation about humanity is that people are generally content to simply feel whatever it is their brain is trying to make them feel. They don’t really know or care why they feel a certain way, they just know that’s what they feel and that’s more than good enough for them.

Identifying the whys of your past will help you spot them in the present and navigate them more effectively in your future.

If you know a moment from your past hurt you greatly, you can find a better way to navigate it if you experience it in your future.

That is not to suggest that you should adopt an attitude of avoidance. There are people who would take that information and use it to do their best to stay away from the things that bother or disturb them, but that’s a bad approach because it can reinforce negative emotions.

The ability to feel your feelings and navigate them is important, because you won’t always have the choice to avoid them.

6. Ensure that your why reflects reality.

There are many content creators, news outlets, and social media sites that use fear and anger as mechanisms to keep their audience hooked and following.

They use your fear, anger, and insecurity to amplify problems in a way that will keep you coming back to watch their broadcast, read their words, or buy their products. That includes using distortion that falls into a gray, quasi-ethical area.

There are many ways to tell the truth depending on which words you choose. Some presentations are more manipulative than others.

It’s worthwhile to double-check additional resources and use a process of critical thinking to ensure that any claim or action that is inciting emotion in you is actually true and honest. You may find that it’s not an honest representation of the facts.

That can range from stuff your friend tells you to, to memes shared on social media, to how your boss criticizes you, to what the news anchor is telling you.

7. Have patience and continue to work on the problem.

A significant problem in this approach is patience. The world is a fast moving place and people have less and less patience by the day.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mesh with working on your mental and emotional health. It’s a long-term process that can take months or years of effort to come to fruition.

It’s something you have to regularly work at and practice to help unwind and dull the circumstances of life that trigger you.

For people with mental illnesses, those efforts may need to happen in conjunction with therapy or medication. You can’t out-think unhealthy brain or body chemistry.

8. Expose yourself to the triggering situations in small doses.

Do you plunge straight into a hot bath? Not generally.

Instead, you step in with one foot, bring the other foot in, and slowly submerge yourself into the bath to give your body time to acclimatize to the change in temperature.

Working through one’s emotional triggers is exactly the same.

Once you have an understanding of what you feel, why you feel it, and how to balance it, you’ll want to put your foot in the water from time to time so you can unwind and defuse those emotions so you’re no longer controlled by them.

As a person with Bipolar Disorder and Major Depression, these are things I have learned and processes I followed in working to unwind my own emotional triggers.

I want no man, woman, circumstance, or my mental illnesses to have the power to disrupt my peace any further. Granted, that is not an all or nothing goal. Even making a few changes can significantly improve your peace of mind and quality of life.

Don’t worry about getting it perfect. No one does.

About The Author

Jack Nollan is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspectives from the side of the mental health consumer. Jack has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.