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What Is Emotional Triggering?

When a trauma happens, we often develop strong emotional beliefs about ourselves or the world. For example, if a child is bit by a dog a party and no adult is around to immediately help, they might develop a belief along the lines of “Nobody looks out for me" or "I’m on my own”. This feeling becomes deeply rooted because of how much fear and emotion was experienced at the moment, laying the groundwork for emotional triggering. Because of it's strength, the belief then becomes a filter through which other experiences are encoded. The child runs home from school one day to show off an important test score but mom is in the backyard and cannot hear them. Again, they think "I'm on my own". Now situations that may not mean anything significant at all, are seen as confirming that the person is on their own, building evidence for the belief. A lifetime of this evidence is collected and then, later on, the person begins acting out of this belief. Maybe they start pushing other people away and keeping everything to themselves, or maybe they do everything everyone needs in a desperate attempt to not feel 'on their own'. Without the intense emotion that came along with the terrifying moment the child was bit, none of these experiences would be taken in with such significance, but now they are a whole inner dilemma the person wrestles with and shapes their life around trying to avoid. Then a situation happens where the person is on their own, it may be a big situation, or the tiniest of things. They may really be on their own, or just imagining that they are because their brain is now so primed to default to this interpretation first. Either way, the present moment is totally overcome by panic. It's can be hard to see from the outside why the person is acting so angry, or scared, or shut down. It's important to know that they are not just reacting to the present moment. They are reacting to all the times this belief has made them feel something terrible about themselves, combined with that first dose of terror from the dog bite. This often feels like the world is ending, because the brain is not in a place of rational thinking anymore, it is taken over by a full stress response.

Emotional triggering happens to all of us to some degree, none of us are without traumas here and there. But for a person who experienced horrible things regularly, did not receive safe and adequate nurturing, or was abused in anyway by the people that they were supposed to can be a minefield of emotional triggers. Closeness in and of itself can feel very scary and it can also bring on deeply painful thoughts about oneself.

@ 2021 BoudewynCounseling


Here are some resources and conversations to help you thrive. While these resources are no substitution for good therapy,I hope they will help you on your healing journey. 

Kaila Boudewyn

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

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