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Personal Growth

Dealing with Triggers: 3 Steps to Understanding Our Emotional Reactions

In the labyrinth of our complex emotions, an abundance of triggers exists, capable of unlocking memories and eliciting strong reactions. Whether rooted in childhood experiences or tied to sentimental objects, these triggers possess the power to evoke intense emotions. How can we navigate the process of dealing with triggers more effectively? In this article, I will share my personal approach to dealing with triggers and understanding our emotional reactions. 

First and foremost, it’s important to note that I am not a psychology expert, nor do I claim that my method is a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, I aim to provide insights into how I have learned to address my own triggers. For a deeper understanding of the psychological aspects involved, I will include a list of valuable resources at the end of this article. Additionally, I highly encourage you to connect with a skilled professional who can provide assistance tailored to your specific circumstances.

What is a Trigger?

The term ‘trigger’ refers to a stimulus that resurfaces painful memories, which can take various forms such as sounds, smells, feelings, or sights. For instance, a loud noise can trigger a combat veteran, while a movie about illness can trigger a cancer survivor. When I am out in public, and a man becomes aggressive or starts shouting, it triggers me. In such instances, my heart starts racing, my palms become sweaty, and my fight-or-flight response is activated. This involuntary reaction stems from the years of abuse I endured as a child.

Three Steps to Deal with Triggers

Over time, as I have grappled with this trigger and numerous others, I have discovered a method that has helped me become more adept at managing them. Recently, I realized that I use the same approach for all of them, which can be broken down into three steps: 

The three steps to dealing with triggers: navigate, reflect, utlize. Displayed with cyclical arrows.

As you can see, it is a cyclical approach. You can repeat these steps over and over to get better and better at dealing with triggers. 


When something triggers you and the response overwhelms you, you want to be able to address it effectively. Navigate the situation as best as you can. Whether it’s removing yourself from the situation, focusing on your breathing, or employing any other technique that helps you regain control. By actively developing coping mechanisms specific to each trigger, you can confront them head-on and alleviate their negative effects.


Sometime after you have the situation under control (it can be immediately after, or a couple of days later when you have time to sit down), reflect on the moment the trigger occurred.

Answer the following questions:

  • What triggered me? (e.g., a dog)

  • Why did it trigger me? (because I got bitten by a dog as a child)

  • What specifically triggered me?  (Was it the sight of the dog, the barking, or the red collar?)

  • Why did that specific thing trigger me? (The sight of the dog triggered me because it resembled the one that bit me. The red collar triggered me because the dog that bit me had a red collar.)

  • What reaction did it evoke? Try to describe it in more detail than simply stating “it made me anxious.” What were the specific feelings? When did they start, and how long did they last?

  • What actions did I take to mitigate the reaction, and how effective were they? This question is crucial. Observe your own behavior without being critical or judgmental, and note the actions you took in the moment.

By investigating the root cause of our emotional reactions, we gain valuable insights into our own psyche. This not only aids in dealing with triggers and improving our emotional responses, as I will explain in the next step, but also offers a fascinating glimpse into the reasons behind our thoughts and feelings. Reflection helps us identify patterns, allowing us to better understand why certain triggers have such a profound impact on us.


Armed with the information that you gained by answering the questions in the previous step, you can now utilize your new insights for your own benefit. Next time you see a barking dog with a red collar you are going to think ‘Ah, there is a barking dog with a red collar. It’s likely going to make me feel anxious.’ Then you will remember ‘I remember last time I tried to walk away as quickly as possible, but that actually made my anxiety worse because I kept hearing the dog behind me’. So this time, you can decide to wait for the dog to move away on its own, or stop and keep looking at the dog while you focus on your breathing. Because you took the time to really reflect, you can now consciously make choices that help you when it occurs again!

Repeat the Steps

Going through these steps once will not solve all of your problems. You will have to repeat them again every time a triggering situation occurs. In my experience, every time I’ve used these steps I have learned something new. Even when the reflection led me to experiment with a coping technique that ultimately made things worse, I still learned that that particular coping technique is not for me! In general, each time I applied these steps, it moved me in the right direction. I view it not as a solution, but as an ongoing process that enables me to train myself in effectively dealing with triggers and understanding my reactions to them. I hope it can do the same for you.

All You Need to Know When You Want to Get Better at Dealing With Triggers

  1. Navigate. When faced with a trigger, take proactive steps to address it by removing yourself from the situation or employing calming techniques, allowing you to regain control of your emotions.

  2. Reflect. After the trigger has subsided, take time to reflect and explore the reasons behind your reaction, identifying patterns to better understand the impact of certain triggers and coping mechanisms on you.

  3. Utilize. Armed with the knowledge gained from reflection, consciously apply coping mechanisms and make informed choices in similar situations, empowering yourself to navigate triggers more effectively and minimize their negative impact on your emotional well-being.



  • What is a trigger. A very clear explanation of what triggers are and how they form, with a list of examples.
  • PTSD overview. A thorough overview of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Better Help. Offers access to licensed, trained, experienced, and accredited mental health professionals.
  • Coping skills worksheets. Lots of great resources on coping skills with practical worksheets for adults and youth.
  • Negative Emotions: List & 158 Examples. List of emotions that may help you identify in more detail what you feel when triggered.

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