Emotional Triggers: Why They’re Hard to Spot, and What You Can Do About Them

by Helene Brenner | Jun 6, 2022 | Art of Feeling, Emotional Awareness, Latest

“What are you doing?” shouts your current partner from another room. “Why, don’t you trust me?”

A moment before you were perfectly happy with your new beau. But suddenly your back has tensed, your breath is caught and your mind’s racing with thoughts about how this is turning out to be just one more horrible, awful relationship.

What’s going on when your reaction to something that’s happened is way out of proportion to what actually happened? You’ve been emotionally triggered.

The tough part about emotional triggers is that they can be hard to spot when they’re happening. At the time, it feels perfectly reasonable to want to break up with your partner for loudly asking what you’re doing, even if they’re just trying to be heard from three rooms away. But emotional triggers don’t come out of the blue. They occur when we feel emotionally threatened.

‘Triggered’ Means Feeling Emotionally ‘Unsafe’

Being “emotionally threatened” is a tricky concept. Obviously, if someone raised their hand in the air in a way that looked like they would strike you, you’d feel physically threatened. But when someone close to you raises their voice in a way that sounds angry to you, you could feel threatened in two ways. You might feel physically threatened because an angry voice was a prelude to getting hit as a child, even though you know your partner would never do that.

But more likely, you feel emotionally threatened because your partner no longer feels emotionally safe. Their raised voice sounds to you like they don’t like you or care about your feelings anymore. So can a thousand other actions or inactions—like forgetting to call after promising to do so.  

All of us, men and women, are hard-wired to want to feel safe and secure in our closest relationships. When two people become emotionally attached to each other, anything that happens that seems to threaten that relationship can feel every bit as threatening to survival as a physical threat. That too, is hard-wired into us; human beings aren’t designed to survive for very long alone. In ancestral times, if the people you depended on didn’t have your back anymore, you’d quickly die. 

The bottom line is, lots of things can be emotional triggers. For some, it’s getting cut off by someone in traffic. But the most common times people get triggered is with their partners, family members, or close friends, which makes perfect sense, because they’re the people most important to our survival. 

Feeling truly threatened, whether it’s physical or emotional, sets off a “fight-or-flight” reaction. When you’re in fight-or-flight, you react first and think about what you’re doing later. So you may end up reacting in a way you later regret.  

What can you do about it? 

Own Your Own Emotional Triggers

Emotional triggers are usually leftovers from a previous event or series of events in your life when you got extremely hurt and couldn’t do anything to stop it. Now, whenever something happens that resembles, even subconsciously, those bad experiences, a part of your brain goes into overdrive, telling you you’re totally unsafe and about to get hurt again.   

Sometimes, you can know you’ve gotten triggered because you feel like your heart is pounding or your chest or gut is tightening in a way that you know is way out of proportion to what just happened. If this happens, you can try to reflect on it before you say or do something you’ll regret.

But sometimes the only way to avoid getting triggered is to have it happen once and learn from it. The trick is to own your own triggers

If you tell your partner “I got triggered because you said such-and-such in that tone of voice,” that’s—pardon the pun—a pretty loaded thing to say. You’re still blaming your partner for your trigger and not truly accepting that the trigger is in you. To your partner, it sounds like you’re telling them they have to change themselves in order for you not to get triggered.

While your partner might be okay with that, it’s also possible they’ll feel unfairly blamed, get angry and be less likely to want to change for you. In other words, they’ll get triggered. That’s the last thing you want.

Instead, try starting a conversation by saying something like, “Wow! I really got triggered when you said x and y, because I thought it meant that you….” After briefly explaining what happened inside you, invite your partner then to tell you what went on in them at the time. 

Doing this isn’t easy! In fact, it will probably feel very vulnerable. But if you can let go of coming across as though your partner deliberately hurt you or wanted to hurt you, most likely your partner will get calmer, more open, and more understanding. Then the two of you can have a real conversation about what your partner really did or didn’t do (and really did or didn’t mean), why you got triggered (including what past experiences led up to it), what your partner can do to help you not get triggered again, and what you can do to see things differently so that you can react in a calmer, non-triggered way. 

Don’t Dismiss Your Negative Feelings—Re-Appraise Them

Recent psychological studies have shown that trying to deny or repress the negative emotions that are typical of getting emotionally triggered does not work well at all. People who try to do that still exhibit lots of physiological signs of distress (like sweaty palms). It’s when people experience the feeling, but then re-appraise what’s happening so that they see it in a less negative and threatening light (called “cognitive re-appraisal”) that they actually become physically calmer and emotionally less reactive, and more able to handle what is happening. 

Getting emotionally triggered is not a pleasant experience. Reacting in an emotionally triggered way, whether it’s lashing out in anger, withdrawing and numbing out, or going into a frenzy of self-attacking thoughts, is doubly hard on you and the people who care most about you, because it cuts off the healing connection that lets you know that what happened to you in the past is not going to happen now. 

A Heaping Dose of Self-Compassion

But please, don’t start getting hard on yourself for having emotional triggers! You probably wouldn’t have them if you hadn’t gotten hurt before. The fastest road to healing emotional triggers is through self-compassion. Follow these three steps:

  1. See if you can recognize when you’ve been triggered. 
  2. Honestly but self-compassionately ask yourself if what you’re going through is a fair reaction to whatever set you off. 
  3. Share what happened to you in a non-blaming way with your partner.

By doing this, you can turn your emotional triggers from a painful moment of misunderstanding and disconnection into an opportunity to feel safer, closer and more emotionally connected, not only with your partner, but with yourself.

About Larry Letich, LCSW-C & Dr. Helene Brenner

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.


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About Us

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.

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