What are triggered emotions?
As the name suggests, a trigger is something that prompts a response. In this case, triggered emotions refers to when something provokes a distressing emotional reaction. While it’s normal to feel emotions such as anger or sadness when something difficult happens in your life, triggered emotions are a more intense experience for those impacted and do not always have a clear link to what has caused them from an outside perspective.
For example, if you park your car on the street and return to find a parking fine, you may feel angry at this situation because it is an unexpected cost, however you are able to move on from it without serious distress.
For someone else, this scenario might trigger a crippling sense of fear and panic because they once had a partner who physically abused them over unexpected bills. Even though they are no longer in a relationship with the abusive partner, the memories and emotional reactions remain, meaning certain scenarios trigger them to feel as though they are back at the source of their distress or trauma.
Another example could be hearing someone talking about the subject of suicide on TV. While many people can pay attention without a strong emotional response, for someone who has attempted suicide in their life, it may trigger feelings and memories of this experience which are very painful to deal with.
This is when trigger warnings can be helpful, as it allows someone to mentally prepare for a potential trigger or avoid it. A trigger warning (also known as a content warning) is a caution that is given before sharing distressing content. They are often used for content about difficult subjects such as death or abuse. Trigger warnings are commonly used on social media but can also be used for school/workplace scenarios or other media formats.
Triggered emotions are often experienced by people with mental health conditions such as eating disorders, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance use disorders. The types of emotions can vary from person to person, however common ones include:
Types of triggers
As with the various types of emotional reactions one might have when they are triggered, the types of situations or causes for a triggered emotion also vary greatly. They can be both internal or external factors, obvious or subtle, or known and unknown to the person who experiences them.
Examples of an external trigger include:
- Familiar sounds or smells
- Certain people
- Particular locations
- Specific times or dates
- Reading about a topic or seeing it online or on TV
Examples of internal triggers include:
- Being rejected by someone – or perception that this has occurred
- Not having control
- Negative feedback or criticism
- Feeling deceived by someone
- Being excluded or ignored – or perception that this has occurred
How to manage triggered emotions
One of the toughest steps of managing triggered emotions is being able to identify them. This means paying attention to how you are reacting in certain scenarios and listening to your mind and body. In these moments, observe your environment and circumstances, and then consider:
- What are your physical symptoms?
- What are your thoughts and feelings? Separate them if you can.
- Is there a particular memory you are reminded of?
This process can take time and you may benefit from working with a mental health professional to navigate it safely and comfortably.
Once you can recognise triggered emotions, you can use self-soothing techniques to help yourself through the moment. For example, if you identify that you are feeling highly stressed or anxious in response to something, you may step away and practice some mindful breathing exercises to reduce your symptoms or go for a walk around the block.
Other useful tactics include:
- Writing how you feel in a journal
- Talking to someone you trust, such as friends or family
- Doing some physical exercise
- Doing expressive art or something creative you enjoy
- Contacting a mental health care professional – such as a CAREinMIND counsellor – to talk things through.
Our CAREinMIND counsellors are available 24/7 on 1300 096 269 or click the floating chat button on the right. The service is free for people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.