NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, March 3, 2024

8 Tips For Coping With Emotional Triggers

In a prior article, Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers, I began a discussion about how to become aware of emotional triggers. 

Coping with Emotional Triggers

In the current article, I'm focusing on tips for coping with emotional triggers.

What Are Emotional Triggers?
A trigger is a person, place, thing or situation that causes an unexpected intense emotional reaction that is rooted in the past.  

For people, who have unresolved trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a trigger can lead to their re-experiencing the past trauma as if it were occurring in the present (see my article: Overcoming Emotional Trauma: Learning to Separate "Then" From "Now").

Coping with Emotional Triggers

Any type of sensory stimulus, including what you see, hear, smell, touch or taste, can be a potential trigger.  

The sensory stimulus you experience, which is usually a non-threatening experience in the present, can trigger an trauma response including:
  • Fight: The fight response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system which is part of the autonomic nervous system. You can feel angry, irritable and even rageful. You can experience increased heart rate and heavier breathing as part of your survival instinct to to protect yourself from danger. If you were experiencing a real danger in the present, the fight response would be essential to protect yourself from a dangerous predator. But when you're experiencing an emotional trigger, you're usually not experiencing a threatening situation in the present.  Instead, you're reacting to memories of unresolved trauma as if it were occuring in the present.
Coping with Emotional Triggers
  • Flight: In the flight response, you want to flee to avoid perceived danger. The flight response is also controlled by the sympathetic nervous system but, unlike the fight response, the driving emotion is fear (instead of anger) along with the possibility of worry and anxiety. In some particularly intense situations, you might experience terror.  
  • Freeze/Immobilization: The freeze response is a combination of the sympathetic nervous system and dorsal vagal activation (dorsal vagal activation is part of the vagus nerve and responds to danger). Fear is the driving emotion with the freeze/immobilization response but, as opposed to the flight response, the desire to run is overtaken by a sense of immobilization. Outwardly, you might appear calm to others because the freeze response often includes emotional numbing, but internally your experience is fear.
  • Fawn: With the fawn response, you're trying to avoid a confrontation as you enter into a dorsal vagal shutdown (related to the vagus nerve). You feel overwhelmed and this can  cause absent-mindedness, dissociation or depersonalization (depersonalization is feeling detached from your body). Overwhelming feelings can lead to a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. In a severe case, you might even pass out or lose consciousness. The fawn response is also referred to as the "please and appease" response (see my article: Trauma and the Fawn Response).
What Are Common Emotional Triggers?
Common emotional triggers include but are not limited to:
  • Past Trauma:Traumatic events or situations from the past can be one-time events like an accident or physical attack or they might have been ongoing events, like developmental trauma from childhood or complex trauma, including abuse or emotional neglect.
  • Painful Negative Memories: Painful negative memories can include memories associated with disappointment, fear, failure and shame and guilt, to name just a few. When you experience a similar situation in the present, these memories can get triggered--even if you don't consciously remember them. In other words, there can be explicit memories that you remember and there can be unconscious memories outside your immediate awareness.
Painful Negative Memories
  • Fear and Phobias: Fear can be an emotional trigger. Fear can trigger strong emotional and physical reactions.  Similarly, phobias, such as fear of flying or fear of heights, can also act as triggers.
  • Stressful Situations: Stressful situations can trigger anxiety and stress.  Examples of stressful situations can include personal or work-related stressors. 
  • Relationship Problems: Current interactions with certain people can trigger intense emotions including sadness, anger or frustration related to the past.
  • Loss or Grief: Certain anniversaries, such as the anniversary of the death of a loved one, can be an emotional trigger for sadness and feelings of loss. 
  • Major Life Changes: Major life changes, even positive ones, can elicit anxiety and stress as well as emotional triggers. This can include moving, changing jobs, getting married, getting divorced, giving birth, health issues and so on (see my article: Navigating Major Life Transitions).
8 Tips For Coping With Emotional Triggers
Just a word about coping versus overcoming triggers: Coping with emotional triggers is important to your day-to-day living, but overcoming emotional triggers requires working with a trauma therapist who can help you to work through the underlying issues related to your triggers so you don't continue to get triggered (more about this later on in this article).

Until you can get help to resolve these underlying issues, you can learn to cope with triggers when they occur.

Here are 8 tips for coping with triggers that can be helpful:
  • 1. Learn to Identify Physical Symptoms Associated With an Emotional Trigger: Since your mind and your body are connected, every emotional trigger has at least one  accompanying physical symptom. By recognizing and identifying the physical symptoms, you can respond with self care instead of reacting in a way that keeps you stuck or activates you even more. Physical symptoms can include but are not limited to:
    • Heart racing
    • Heavy breathing 
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Pain or muscle soreness in your neck, back, stomach or other parts of your body
    • Sweating
    • Dizziness
    • Crying
    • Other physical reactions
  • 2. Learn to Pause: By learning to pause when you can recognize when you're getting triggered, you're taking a break to allow yourself to respond instead of react to the trigger. Pausing also allows you to use various coping strategies. Pausing is a skill that takes practice because triggers occur in a fraction of a second and it takes practice to be aware of the need to take a break while the trigger is occurring. So, until you learn to pause, practice patience and self compassion.
Coping With Emotional Triggers

  • 4. Acknowledge Your Emotions: Once you have calmed yourself, acknowledge your emotions--no matter what they are. You might be tempted to suppress your emotions because they feel so uncomfortable, but being aware and acknowledging your emotions is an important part of your healing. When you suppress emotions, they come back even stronger.
  • 5. Keep a Journal: Write about your emotions in a journal. Journal writing can help to calm you. It can also help you to detect certain emotional and physical patterns when you get triggered.
Journal Writing to Cope With Emotional Triggers

  • 6. Establish Healthy Boundaries: People who have experienced significant trauma often have a hard time establishing healthy boundaries with others. This is often because they experienced boundary violations when they were younger. It's important to your sense of well-being to be able to say no when you need to take care of yourself. In addition to being able to respond assertively to reduce the likelihood of getting triggered, it's also important for you to be able to express your emotional needs to people in your life who are supportive (see my article: Setting Healthy Boundaries).
  • 7. Develop a Strong Emotional Support System: Supportive loved ones can provide empathy and give you a different perspective on your situation. Talking to supportive loved ones can also help reduce feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness and isolation.
Coping With Emotional Triggers 

  • 8. Seek Help From a Skilled Trauma Therapist: As mentioned earlier, you can learn to cope with triggers as they arise, but to overcome the underlying traumatic issues related to the triggers, seek help from a skilled trauma therapistTrauma therapy is a broad category for different types of mind-body oriented psychotherapy, which is also known as Experiential Therapy including:
What Are the Benefits of Getting Help From a Trauma Therapist?
A trauma therapist is a licensed mental health professional who has training, expertise and experience in various forms of trauma therapy. 

Unlike therapists who are generalists, trauma therapists are specialists who have gone beyond the basic mental health training to learn specific forms of trauma therapy (as mentioned above).

Getting Help in Trauma Therapy

Trauma therapy is different from most forms of talk therapy because it uses specific techniques and strategies to help clients to overcome trauma.  

As a trauma therapist, as a first step, I prepare clients for trauma therapy by helping them to develop the necessary internal resources to cope with whatever comes up during the therapy session or  between sessions (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Strategies in Trauma Therapy).

As memories are processed in trauma therapy, the client can experience a reduction and, eventually, an elimination of emotional triggers related to trauma.

If you're experiencing emotional triggers, you could benefit from seeking help from a trauma therapist to overcome unresolved trauma and live a more meaningful life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, trauma therapist (using EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing, Ego States Therapy/Parks Work and Clinical Hypnosis), couples therapist and sex therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.