Triggers and The Need for Emotional Regulation

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Have you ever yelled at your partner or kids, typed something you later wish you hadn’t sent or told off someone in a parking lot? Then you may have been emotionally-hijacked.

Who hasn’t witnessed – or experienced – the pain caused by a lack of emotional regulation?

Most of us, if triggered enough, have acted in a way that embarrasses us. It takes only a second, actually even less than that, for an impulsive act to have lifetime repercussions.

What is Emotional Regulation?

CASEL defines self-management as, “The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations.” Self-management is synonymous with self-regulation. Examples of self-regulation skills include, but are not limited to: Managing stress. Controlling impulses.  Read More at

It means being able to manage triggers healthily without inappropriate, spontaneous reactions.  

What Emotional Regulation Is Not

Emotional control is the ability to shut down the actions that accompany feelings; not shutting down the feelings themselves. The goal is not to suppress emotions, rather, it is to detach ourselves from the negative feelings. We must learn to hit the “pause button” to delay or even halt the impulsive and disruptive reactions.

You can’t demand that your feelings not surface, nor can you deny that they exist. Instead, you need to understand the feelings and learn to manage them with empathy. This is what makes up emotional intelligence and it is a lot harder to do than we like to think.

1. We All Have Emotional Regulation Triggers

You are fully aware that losing your “cool” is not socially acceptable. You have honed your ability to exercise emotional control – in most situations – and yet, no matter how collected, mature, and professional you are most of the time, something will set you off!  

2. Understand Your Triggers

Take effort to better understand what your emotional triggers are. Maybe it is an attack of a loved one, or it is a personal attack that you feel is unjust or that you have worked hard at remediating. A real or perceived threat can hijack our thinking-brain. When our reptilian brains overtake our thinking brains, we often have a lapse in judgement.

Is It a Lapse in Judgement or an Amygdala Hijack?

Making good choices and exercising self-control involve higher level executive functions. When we engage in executive function activities, we access the frontal lobe(s), the largest part of the brain. An actual or perceived threat can trigger the amygdala and thus hijack our rational processes. This often results in a fight, flight, or freeze response. [I wrote more on this in last week’s blog]

3. Acknowledge When It Happens

Ugh! It happened! Now what? Shame and embarrassment makes us want to hide.

Admitting wrongdoing is hard, yet I encourage you to acknowledge it – to yourself, to those impacted and to those who witnessed it. A public, transparent apology that ideally addresses the wrong-doing, will help dissipate the impact.

4. Speak to Yourself with Compassion

Next, as soon as you are able, take care to make amends.  The admittance and apology does not have to be lengthy. It should, however, be authentic with a genuine desire to make amends. It is important that you are emotionally ready to as it could come across as insincere. The goal is to demonstrate honesty and remorse.  

Some wounds trigger our emotional response.  Consider sharing what triggered you with people you trust. Try to create a circle of support so you feel less alone and be sure to speak to yourself with compassion; we all do our best every day.

Moving Forward: Develop a Pause Button

When you learn to harness the executive functions of your brain and train yourself to recognize uncomfortable feelings, to process them and then to wait before acting, you will see that they will pass. They are only feelings and others will come and go. This is not easy, but it is a critical goal in your personal development.

[Read Pause Saves the Day, and How to Deal With Rejection Sensitivity]

Emotional Regulation Takes Time

More than likely, you have reacted instinctively to a trigger that you have later regretted.

Forgive yourself and do your best to remove yourself from the situation in order to calm down (bathrooms can be a wonderful sanctuary!)

Emotional outbursts happen, but if they become habitual, they can derail career opportunities and relationships. No one can master emotional regulation in a day. Emotional control is a work-on for life — for everyone. Even for those at the very top of their game.

Do you know what your triggers are?

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