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Understanding Emotional Triggers

We’ve probably all felt an emotional trigger, whether we realise it or not. Ever walked along the street and caught the hint of the aftershave of an old flame? Or heard a song that took you right back to your school days? Depending on how you feel about these people or events, the emotions you feel might be warm and comforting, or sad and angry. If the memory being triggered is a particularly traumatic one, you might even feel fear, distress or anxiety.

This is what an emotional trigger is – a place, person, event, smell, song, phrase or anything else that brings back memories and evokes an emotional response. This can be positive or negative, but whichever it is, it can be a strong, almost visceral reaction at times.

Experiencing a positive emotional trigger can be a welcome little lift that buoys you up with the memories of happy times, making you feel grateful and providing the warm blanket of comfort.

But the same cannot be said for negative triggers. If you see, hear, smell or do something that brings back upsetting or traumatic memories, this can set off a chain reaction of emotions and physical symptoms that can be difficult to rein in. Symptoms can include heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, and shakiness or dizziness, all of which can exacerbate existing feelings of anxiety and stress.

It’s common to feel triggered by scenarios where you experience rejection, confrontation, criticism, being unwanted or unneeded, excluded or ignored, but your triggers will be individual to you and your experiences.

If you frequently experience negative triggers, or have experienced difficult and distressing challenges in the past that are likely to be triggered by seemingly innocuous things, it can help to develop strategies to cope with and manage them. It’s unlikely that you will forever be able to avoid certain places or situations, so it is a good idea to be able to deal with triggers before they begin to affect you.

Here are some things you can try:


It’s important to firstly identify the emotions you are feeling, and then to acknowledge that it’s ok to react in this way. Learning to accept your feelings can be difficult at first, but denying or ignoring them can end up being worse in the long run.


We are often not fully aware of what our triggers are, as they can be subtle or buried deep in our memory. This is why it can be helpful to track mood and keep a journal, as it can help us see patterns that we might miss during the noise of the every day. You can then use this information to pre-empt when you might experience a trigger, and to bring about positive change in these situations.


It can help to remind yourself that what you are feeling now is not the same as what you experienced during the original event, it is a different time and the circumstances are not repeating. Try taking some deep breaths, or excusing yourself from the situation if possible, just to give yourself time to re-group. This can give you the opportunity to choose a different response that stops your emotions escalating.


Counter-acting a negative trigger with a positive one can be a useful strategy. Positive triggers will be different for everyone, but try to think of songs, foods, books, activities or similar that will give you a warm glow, and then seek these out (or have a ready supply to hand!) in times of stress, worry or upset. It might give you the little boost you need to remind you of the good things in life.


If the above tips don’t help, or only provide short-term solutions, then it might be worth speaking to a counsellor who can help you safely explore past events in a way that can help you understand and heal.

The YU app is a great place to start! It can help you track your mood and put it into context of what you were doing, who you were with, and where you were, all of which builds up a picture of why you feel the way you do.

Being able to look back at your analytics helps you spot patterns in your behaviour or routine that can trigger certain feelings, which is the first step in overcoming them. If you haven’t ready, download it today to see if can help you regain a sense of control of your emotions.

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