What To Do When You Are Emotionally Triggered? — by SUMIT GUPTA

Do You Know your Emotional Triggers? And What To Do When You Are Emotionally Triggered?

Sumit Gupta
7 min readJan 10, 2019

“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power” — Lao Tzu

I am sure we’ve all experienced a sudden emotional reaction. It happens when our thinking starts to become clouded, and feelings (of fear, anger, or sadness) overwhelm us. While it’s not always possible to avoid emotional outbursts, there are always better ways of expressing our emotions without suppression or explosion.

Our emotions play a crucial role at the workplace too. Anybody who tells us otherwise doesn’t understand that human beings are emotional beings, and just because we are at work we can’t expect to not have any emotions at all.

Teamwork and cooperation rely heavily on each team members’ communication. Here’s where identifying our emotional triggers becomes important. Understanding our own emotions also helps us understand how we can interact better with others. Rather than suppressing or controlling our emotions, we should be able to express our emotions in a way that we can be proud of in the long term, and which just doesn’t give the kind of short term relief an emotional outburst provides. When we are able to do that, we build trust and cooperation with colleagues which in turn translates into better quality work.

When Do We Become Emotionally Triggered?

Every one of us is unique. We have our own likes and dislikes, personalities, and habits. We sometimes refer to this as our “identity” as individuals. We all have our own unique and different emotional triggers as part of our identity, and some of us are more sensitive to these emotional triggers than others.

Our beliefs, values, culture, and past experiences shape how our identity is formed. In a similar fashion, our means of expressing emotions are shaped over time. They are learned and slowly become habits, unless we intervene and decide to change them.

But what causes our emotions to trigger in the first place? There are different factors that can trigger our emotions. Figuratively, emotional triggers are stimuli that can press our hot buttons. Like an Achilles’ heel, we usually try to guard ourselves from these triggers.

What Factors Cause Our Emotions to Trigger?

These triggers can vary from the simplest things in our daily life to more personal ones, but they can be classified into common factors such as the following:

  • Undesirable memories of people, places, and events — Anything that reminds us of a past traumatic experience can be an emotional trigger. These memories evoke strong emotions that might cause us to behave differently.
  • Stress and lack of comfort — Some situations cause our emotions to stir without us knowing why. The loss of comfort and the built-up stress in these situations weaken us and cause our emotions to trigger.
  • Conflicting beliefs, values, and culture — Our emotions often trigger when we feel that our identity is being attacked. While some of us can be aware when this happens, most of us instinctively have our emotions triggered whenever conflicting beliefs arise without us realising so.
  • Pet peeves and dislikes — The things we dislike, whether or not we’re aware, also trigger our emotions depending on how much we dislike that thing. While pet peeves don’t always trigger strong emotions, these dislikes may weaken our emotional barriers and make us more emotionally vulnerable.

Once these emotional triggers press our hot buttons, we often become overwhelmed with emotions. As a result, our actions can often end up sending the wrong message. These can strain our relationships with people around us, or give an impression to others which we might not want to convey.

Knowing what our emotional triggers are is the first step to expressing them wisely. Becoming less vulnerable to emotional triggers requires knowing where our weak spots hide. As we get to know more about ourselves, we learn our emotional triggers and become more skilled in expressing emotions in a way that we can be proud of. When we think of it this way, we can turn our emotions into a strength rather than a weakness.

How Do You Identify Your Emotional Triggers?

“But feelings can’t be ignored, no matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.” — Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

We can’t always avoid stressful situations. At work, we face these situations when heated arguments happen and conflicting views arise. There will always be times when our emotional triggers suddenly act up. Whether we like it or not, we still need to collaborate with different people and their different identities. It all boils down to how we react to what we face.

To be able to identify our emotional triggers, we must begin with introspection or the process of examining our emotions. Like a river, our emotions flow continuously. Learning what causes the tides of our emotions to change will help us identify our emotional triggers. Our body can also help us identify these changes.

  • Start by identifying physical symptoms of uneasiness and stress. Our body sends warning signals to our brain without us consciously knowing. These signals manifest into physical symptoms that we can identify. Involuntary shaking, sweating, increased heartbeat, and headaches are common symptoms that our mental state is vulnerable. You’ll notice that these physical symptoms arise when we start becoming highly emotional. By mastering this knowledge, we can identify the emotional triggers that causes us discomfort.
  • Notice changes in our behaviour. Our actions and mannerisms usually change when our emotional triggers affect us. Changes in the way we interact with certain people or in our routine are also symptoms of a weakened emotional state. In the same way as physical symptoms, we can also learn more about our emotional triggers by noticing patterns in our behaviour.
  • Identify common patterns. Learning more about our emotions and emotional triggers requires us to identify some common patterns. We need to know our dominant emotion before, during, and after periods of being highly emotional. Through this method, we can slowly map out how our emotions play out when we are triggered.
  • Reflect on your actions on when you became emotionally triggered. There will be situations when you will not know what exactly triggered your emotions even if you’re already aware of some of your emotional triggers. The best way to adapt to these situations is by reflecting on our actions and identifying what we can do to prevent the same situation from happening again.

What To Do When You Are Emotionally Triggered?

“He that knows patience knows peace” — Chinese Proverb

When worst comes to worst, we need to think and act fast and not panic. Below are some ways to avoid acting impulsively and doing something which we would regret later.

  • Take a break — Take a pause, right where you are. Stop speaking if you are talking and take some deep breaths. Get present to your body inhaling and exhaling. Let your body calm down and slowly relax. This will help you diffuse the situation as fast as possible.
  • Get out of the situation (if possible). If it’s an uncomfortable situation that you can get out of, then do so immediately. You’ll know when you need to leave if you’re starting to feel physical symptoms. Removing yourself from the situation gives you a chance to recover. If you can’t get out of the situation, patiently wait for an opening to excuse yourself.
  • Write it all down in a journal. Feelings of blame, justification, guilt or regret may often linger after having emotional outbursts. What you can do is to write your experience down in a journal. Keep writing until you have nothing left to say or express. Releasing all of the lingering emotions into a journal not only helps you release those emotions but also helps document your progress. P.S. — Don’t send it to anyone. Read it a few times and delete/destroy it.
  • Reflect and continue learning from the experience. Learning about ourselves is a continuing experience. Reflect on what you did and what you can do differently the next time. By reflecting on our past actions, we can always find ways to express our emotions better.
  • Seek professional help if you need to. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in seeking professional help. This could range from asking a trusted mentor for advice or seeking intervention from a trained doctor. Some of us have grown up with several emotional triggers that greatly affect our daily life, and seeking professional help is sometimes necessary to live a more meaningful life.

Avoid Intoxication

Though there is always a temptation of doing so, we must avoid taking drugs and alcohol to feel better or suppress our emotions in the short term. Drugs and alcohol do not only remove so-called “inhibitors” but also weaken our mental state to the point where we become increasingly sensitive to our emotional triggers. What’s worse is that we tend to act more impulsively under the influence of alcohol that can cause harm to our relationships and people close to us.

In conclusion, the process of controlling our emotions goes hand-in-hand with learning about our true identity. Like how the seasons change, so too does our identity. Different experiences will eventually lead us to learn more about ourselves. Hopefully, this article will guide you in identifying and adapting to new emotional triggers that you’ll discover.

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Sumit Gupta shares ideas on Coaching, Psychology, Neuroscience, and Leadership at Deploy Yourself. To read his latest thoughts to Deploy Yourself at work and elsewhere, join his free newsletter.



Sumit Gupta

I help leaders create impactful and meaningful results in life. I help Powerful People realize how powerful they are. — More at www.deployyourself.com