7 Ways To Handle Emotional Triggers, Explained By A Psychotherapist

Contributing writer By David Richo, Ph.D., MFT
Contributing writer
David Richo, Ph.D., MFT, is a psychotherapist, teacher, workshop leader, and writer based in Santa Barbara and San Francisco, California. He is the author of many books, including How to be an Adult in Relationships, How To Be An Adult In Faith and Spirituality, and Coming Home to Who You Are.

Image by Ivan Gener / Stocksy

Between 2 and 3 million years ago, our ancestors learned to make and use tools. Since then, every generation has invented more and more sophisticated implements. Today, we own a collection of sophisticated tools to handle household or automotive needs. We also care for our tools, store them for future use, and add to our collection when necessary. We might have some tools we don't know how to use to their full capacity.

All these options are a metaphor for our inner resources, the human toolbox. Thus, each of us stores useful inner tools, strategies to handle the challenges that come to us from people, events, and circumstances. We might have a minimal or a state-of-the-art collection.

We can learn how to make, use, upgrade, care for, and store the tools that can work for a lifetime. Without tools, we are at the mercy of many emotional triggers. With tools ready at hand, we deal with what happens with grace and effectiveness. We can trust that we all have tools, inner resources.

Some specific tools, both psychological and spiritual, help us respond rather than react to triggers. Here are seven that can help get you started:

1. Name the trigger.

Naming is a primary way of dealing with any trigger. Making a list of our familiar, often-repeated triggers leads us to be on the lookout for them, to have a plan to deal with them: "This is one of my triggers, so let me be careful not to overreact but instead to handle it this way..."

We are catching the trigger red-handed and are ready to deal with it without being devastated by it. We can now immediately distinguish between what happened factually from what affects us personally.

Article continues below

2. Write notes about the trigger.

Note your triggers in a journal along with your usual reactions to each of them. Dub each trigger entry a given of life, something that can happen to anyone: "I can expect that this might happen..." After each reaction entry, we write, "I have many options in how I can respond."

Now we see that we don't have to fall into a habitual reaction. That is a transition from compulsion to freedom. It is, by the way, the same transition we make to free ourselves from fear.

3. Try to find its source.

Finding the source of a trigger—for example, a specific event, trauma, or transference—is central to freeing ourselves from it. In my own experience, I notice that when I accurately locate where my trigger came from, I reduce its wallop sometimes by as much at 70%! In fact, now I occasionally find what used to trigger me amusing. 

Working on the original trigger goes a long way to end its power over us. We take ownership of our triggers by engaging in the work, often lifelong, to resolve them. What remains alien, "all about them," keeps us stuck in separateness; what we acknowledge as our own, we are able to heal and let go of.

Article continues below

4. Remember that you are your own worst critic—so be kind to yourself.

When you are triggered by the inner critic, do not reply with an opposing opinion. That reaction will tie you into a web of back-and-forth with a voice trained much better than we in how to put us down. Instead, use the inner critic's commentary about us as a call, a bell that reminds us to perform a spiritual practice, such as loving-kindness. For instance, the voice tells us we will "fail as we always have." Neither argue nor agree, but go directly to your affirmation: "I trust myself to do the best I can and to handle what happens." Now the voice of the inner critic is a skillful means to help us evolve.

We can trust an inner healthy voice that advocates for us and is not critical of us. We are accessing not only the voice of sanity and reason but also the voice of encouragement that builds self-esteem. We can talk to ourselves like a kindly aunt or uncle. We distinguish what is happening from how we are feeling or believing things to be. We comfort ourselves and show understanding rather than rebuke ourselves for feeling so weakened by the reactions a trigger evinces.

Apply your self-advocating voice as an override to obsessive thoughts, especially fear-triggering ones. When you hear yourself saying, "The worst will happen," interrupt—pave over it—with "I have it in me to handle whatever happens."

5. Take some time to calm your emotional response.

Triggers evoke exaggerated or inappropriate emotional reactions. Our emotions are like muscles. They develop in healthy ways by being used appropriately. When we have hidden our anger most of our lives, for example, it becomes stunted. This is one reason a reaction may come out as awkward and exaggerated when we are triggered. As we practice knowing and showing our emotions, we will be less likely to react inappropriately to what triggers them.

When we are triggered, we lose our objectivity, and the wind may be knocked out of us. Thus, we can't easily be assertive and say "the right thing." We can reduce our reaction considerably when we take a breather. Let your ego calm down. Only when your ego is on hold can you respond to others with a nonjudgmental reporting of the impact of their behavior on us. Your assertion will then be much more rational. You can access your inner resource of self-calming patience and are not so strongly triggered next time.

When someone triggers us by shaming, insulting, or hurting us, we can use the following technique (although it is difficult to remember to do this!): Simply repeat aloud to them very slowly the exact words that triggered you. Establish eye contact and keep looking directly at the person in silence as if awaiting his response. This is an example of how you can create the pause that can prevent you from being bowled over so easily or feeling so victimized. This technique also gently confronts the other with their own words so they can feel how they landed on you.

Article continues below

6. Share your trigger with a trusted friend or family member.

Triggers thrive on our belief that we are alone in having them. They lose a major amount of their power when we realize that people we trust and admire are triggered in the same ways we are. Even enlightened people and saints can be triggered.

Sharing with a trusted friend what your triggers are can lead to being mirrored by him or her. That goes a long way to reducing the wallop of a trigger. All of us feel alone at times, but we can trust that no one is alone in a world so interlaced as ours.

7. Remember, you have resources.

It may be difficult to remember that we have these resources. This is because they reside in the part of our brain that is offline when a trigger assails us. We will need a daily visible reminder—for example, a note on the fridge saying, "When you are triggered, you have resources." You can then name a resource you have learned from this article.

This suggestion works especially well when we are aware of our main triggers. Then, when they click in, we are more likely to go to the practices that help us deal with our triggers. That way, triggers can change from being on-ramps into reactions to becoming trusty bridges into healing.

Adapted from Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing by David Richo © 2019 by David Richo. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc. Boulder, Colorado.

The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They are the opinions of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of mindbodygreen, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

And are you ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

More On This Topic

Guided Visualizations

Guided Visualizations
More Mindfulness

Popular Stories

Latest Articles

Latest Articles

Sites We Love

Your article and new folder have been saved!