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5 Steps for Managing Your Emotional Triggers

Your guide to gaining emotional freedom.

Key points

  • A person cannot change their feelings until they recognize them.
  • An emotional trigger occurs when a person reacts as though they aren't getting or will not get one of their needs met.
  • The best thing to do when an emotion is triggered is to identify it quickly and then choose what to say or do next.
Peter Atkins/Dollarphotoclub
Source: Peter Atkins/Dollarphotoclub

One of the many wonders of your brain is how masterfully it rationalizes your behavior.

Something occurs, you react, and then your brain instantly concocts a reason for your reaction that seems to justify your behavior even if the reason makes no sense. For example, you get very angry because you can’t find a report you were working on. You blame the company for giving you insufficient space, the cleaners for moving things around on your desk, or your boss for giving you a stupid task or deadline. You ignore the reasons you are tired and your patience is thin. You suppress your unhappiness with your boss or your life.

“The ingenuity of self-deception is inexhaustible,” wrote essayist Hannah Moore in 1881. The act of rationalizing is so quick, the best you can do is to recognize when it occurs and choose to consider what else could be causing your reaction.

The first step is to accept responsibility for your reactions.

Accept yourself as powerful instead of as victim to remove the veil of self-deception. When you seek to identify what is triggering how you feel in the moment, you give yourself the chance to feel differently if you want to. You will also have more clarity on what you need to do or what you need to ask for to change your circumstances.

What would your life look like if you were in control of your reactions? How free would you feel if you lived your life by choice? If these questions inspire you to diligently practice the steps for emotional freedom, read on.

The second step is to recognize that you are having an emotional reaction as soon as it begins to appear in your body.

According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, author of Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, at any moment, your rate of breathing, blood flow, tension in your muscles and constriction in your gut represents a pattern you can identify as a feeling. The sooner you recognize that you are breathing quickly or not at all, that certain muscles in your body tightened, or that you feel pressure in your gut or heart, stop and ask yourself what you are feeling and why. You can download a list of emotional states and an exercise to increase your awareness of emotions on this page.

Don’t judge or fear your emotions. No matter what you learned about the evils of emotions, if you don’t recognize your feelings, you can’t change them, negatively impacting your relationships, job performance, and overall happiness.

If the emotion is related to fear, anger, or sadness, the third step is to determine what triggered the emotion.

What do you think you lost or what did you not get that you expected or desired to have?

The strengths that have helped in life are also your greatest emotional triggers when you feel someone is not honoring one of them. When your brain perceives that someone has taken or plans to take one of these important things away from you, your emotions are triggered.

The quicker you notice an emotion is triggered, the sooner you can discover if the threat is real or not.

The following list includes some of the most common emotional triggers, meaning you react when you feel as though you aren’t getting or will not get one of these needs met.

acceptance respect be liked

be understood be needed be valued

be in control be right be treated fairly

attention comfort freedom

peacefulness balance consistency

order predictability love

safety feel included autonomy

fun new challenges independence

Choose three items from the list that most often set off your emotions when you don’t get these needs met. Be honest with yourself. Which three needs, when not met, will likely trigger a reaction in you? Identify the needs that you hold most dear.

Some of these needs will be important to you. Others will hold no emotional charge for you. Some seem to overlap; choose the words you feel strongly about and begin to notice when your reactions are tied to unmet needs.

Needs are not bad. You have these needs because at some point in your life, the need served you. For example, your experiences may have taught you that success in life depends on maintaining control, establishing a safe environment, and having people around you who appreciate your intelligence. However, the more you are attached to having control, safety and being seen as smart, the more your brain will be on the lookout for circumstances that deny you your needs. The unmet need or threat becomes an emotional trigger.

The fourth step is to choose what you want to feel and what you want to do.

With practice, the reaction to your emotional triggers could subside, but they may never go away. The best you can do is to quickly identify when an emotion is triggered and then choose what to say or do next.

Ask yourself: Are you really losing this need or not? Is the person actively denying your need or are you taking the situation too personally? If it’s true that someone is ignoring your need or blocking you from achieving it, can you either ask for what you need or, if it doesn’t really matter, can you let the need go for now?

Choose to ask for what you need, let it go if you honestly feel that asking for what you need will have no value, or do something else to get your need met.

The fifth step is to actively shift your emotional state.

You can practice this step at any time, even when you first notice a reaction to help you think through your triggers and responses. When you determine what you want to do next, shift into the emotion that will help you get the best results.

Relax – breathe and release the tension in your body.

Detach – clear your mind of all thoughts.

Center – drop your awareness to the center of your body just below your navel.

Focus – choose one keyword that represents how you want to feel in this moment. Breathe in the word and allow yourself to feel the shift.

Stop trying to managing your emotions. Instead, choose to feel something different when an emotion arises. This is how you gain emotional freedom.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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