3 Signs You Are About to Emotionally Derail

If you know what to look for, you can stop yourself from hitting a rough patch.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Bigstock w/ permission
Source: Bigstock w/ permission

If you’ve ever been in a dark place in life and gotten out of it, then you’ve probably wondered whether or not you could fall back into that dark place again.

I’ve worked with many clients who have gone through difficult things in their lives and consequently they experienced a lot of distressing negative emotions. While they all wanted to feel better, many were often afraid of feeling good because they feared it wouldn’t last. Some would hold their breath while they told me about the positive experiences and emotions they were having because they felt they were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mental well-being, however, isn’t a mysterious force that you have no control over. Your mental health is a lot like your physical health, in that there are things you can proactively do to take care of it.

To keep yourself physically healthy, you do things like eat right, get enough sleep, drink water, and take your vitamins. To keep yourself mentally healthy, you can engage in activities such as making time for self-care, pursuing goals, spending time with loved ones, quieting your inner critic, spending time in nature, meditating, reading self-help books, or talking to a therapist.

So, why do so many people find it difficult to maintain their positive well-being over time? 

What trips many people up are triggers and bad habits. 

Triggers are events that tap our sensitive spots in our psyche, that when they get hit can result in a flood of negative emotions. These sensitive spots are often painful very deeply held beliefs about ourselves. I’m not good enough, I’m unworthy, I’m unlovable, I’m incapable and useless.

Your sensitivity to triggers depends on how active or entrenched the belief is and how vulnerable you are based on what else is happening in your life. Depending on your sensitivity, a trigger can be something as small as an off-handed comment or something more significant like an unfavorable work review or a break-up.

People sometimes develop very bad habits as unhealthy ways to cope with the feelings that result from these painful deeply held beliefs that get triggered, such as drinking and doing drugs, shopping excessively, getting into co-dependent relationships, over-eating, or other self-harming behaviors. 

But triggers don’t have to set you back. There are generally warning signs that you are becoming more vulnerable to triggers. If you pay attention to the signs that a setback is coming you can get ahead of it and keep yourself on track. 

Below are three warning signs you may be headed for emotional derailment if a trigger comes your way. 

1. You start slacking off on the things that make you feel good.

It’s not unusual that when people start to feel good, they stop doing the things that helped them get there. Maybe you stop eating healthy, spend less time with friends, exercise or mediate less, stop reading helpful books, or just in general stop taking care of yourself as much as you know you should.

There isn’t an arrival point in your well-being where once you get there you can stop caring for yourself—it’s a continuous process. When you’re practicing good mental hygiene, you have more emotional resilience and presence of mind to deal with emotional triggers, and you will be less likely to backslide and head down the dark hole again.  

2. You are increasingly experiencing more negative moods.

Unless you are dealing with a psychiatric condition known as bipolar disorder, which is estimated to affect less than 1% of the population, or unless something very unexpected happens, like the death of a loved one in an accident, moods generally don’t make big leaps all at one time. You aren’t likely to go from very happy to incredibly depressed overnight.

Moods generally start to shift over a period of days or even weeks. Lots of times people don’t pay attention to this shift until they are in a notably low place. It’s important to monitor your moods on a regular basis and when you do notice a shift of some sort don’t simply ignore it; try to identify what’s causing that shift and make the effort to do something to feel better. 

3. You are starting to put yourself in situations that you know are triggers. 

This one is more obvious but often ignored because there is a conflicting payoff. Many situations that can be triggers are also associated with powerful rewards. If you start to notice you are engaging in risky behavior, such as agreeing to get together with an abusive ex-boyfriend, hanging out with friends who use drugs even though you are trying to stay sober, spending too much time with friends who are negative, or you buy yourself a giant box of doughnuts and tell yourself that you will just eat one—you are likely heading toward an emotional pitfall. 

People often place themselves in these situations when they are experiencing a negative mood shift and they are missing the temporary feel-good effects of an old habit of coping. The only way to deal with this one is to choose smarter. If it made you feel bad in the past, it will almost certainly make you feel bad again. There are lots of healthy ways to feel good. If you practice caring for your mental health on a regular basis, you’ll be less tempted to reach for an old feel-good fix with a known bad ending. 

While at times it may not feel like it, your mental well-being is within your control. It is possible to feel good most of the time. But it requires engaging in behaviors that promote good mental health with consistency and commitment, not just when you’re feeling bad. To read about a mental wellness routine that can change your life, click here


Vilhauer, Jennice (2014). Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind's Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life. New World Library. Novato, CA.