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Emotional Triggers in the Environment

Pina Colada & Pineapple - Boca del Drago, Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, PanamaFor emotionally sensitive people, environmental emotional triggers are everywhere.

Emotional triggers are experiences that bring about emotions. Environmental triggers can be something you see, something you hear, something you smell or something you touch. Even a certain movement, like dancing or sitting in a porch swing, can bring about emotion. The emotions triggered can be from the past or about the present.

Some common emotional triggers are television/movies, computers, books, and friends.

Television and Movies. Television shows and movies are two of the biggest emotional triggers. Graphic violence or sexual content is often triggering. In addition, to create suspense, scriptwriters often hurl difficult experiences at the characters, putting them in horrible situations. What is entertaining and suspenseful for some can be emotionally painful for the emotionally sensitive. For animal lovers, movies that include harm to an animal can be particularly upsetting. Some people may find seemingly neutral content triggering though is not upsetting to others.  What triggers emotions can be different for different individuals.

The news is often emotionally intense, showing wars, murders, kidnappings and other tragedies. Reality television about hospitals and emergency response situations can create fear and sadness.

Computers. Sometimes emotionally sensitive people search for information about upsetting issues. Though understanding an issue is often helpful, sometimes the search is not about understanding but becomes emotion-building, like throwing wood on a fire.

Books.  While reading does not include the visual component that television and movies have, many emotionally sensitive people experience vivid images when reading. Reading a book with upsetting themes may add to someone feeling overwhelmed with emotion.

Friends. Talking with friends can be a trigger.  Someone who typically relates bad news or who focuses on dire events that might happen in the future may trigger emotional upset. In a effort to be supportive, some friends or acquaintances may repeatedly ask about sensitive issues, such as being unemployed or a child’s struggle in school. While their intention may be to offer support and show caring, the result is they’ve triggered uncomfortable feelings. The emotionally sensitive may begin to withdraw because of the uncomfortable feelings that come from these conversations.

Conflict with others can be particularly upsetting to emotionally sensitive people, to the point they may experience a kind of panic when conflict occurs.  Sometimes they feel compelled to resolve the conflict, not able to stop talking or thinking about the issue, worried about the loss of the relationship. Others may be unable to function, perhaps overcome with anxiety or staying in bed with depression.  Another response is to avoid the conflict completely, deciding they do not want the relationship.  After the emotion weakens, sometimes they feel differently, but the emotional cost is high.

Choices to Consider

Whenever you experience emotional pain, whether it is triggered by something that happens in real life or on television, the brain reacts as if the situation were real. The stress of emotional upset is damaging to physical health as well as emotional well-being.  There are many emotionally painful experiences that cannot be changed or avoided, but it’s helpful to manage as many as you can.

1.  Be aware of your emotional triggers.  Pay attention to what leads to your emotional flooding or discomfort. Knowledge of your triggers helps you prepare or even to avoid triggering situations.

2.  Take unnecessary triggers out of your life. Don’t watch the news or other television shows that create emotional pain for you.

3.  Consider letting your friends know that you are emotionally sensitive. Gently let them know when you would prefer to change the subject or if there are topics you’d rather not discuss. They may need to be reminded even if they know you well and it’s unlikely they would know all your emotional triggers.

4.  Use imagery to protect yourself. For example, imagine yourself covered in a Teflon shield. All the information that is upsetting and not important to live your life just flows off the shield down into a metal pipe and into the ocean.

5.  Consider carefully the people you choose to be around you.

6.  Remember to engage your rational brain.  Sometimes people who are emotionally sensitive can react primarily from their emotions. Making a point to step back and think as well as feel can be helpful in deciding to not get involved in a situation that could be damaging.

7.  Schedule time to self-soothe and relax. Find ways to give yourself vacations from stress.  Reading a magazine and sipping hot tea, getting a massage, or having a bubble bath are some ways to consider soothing yourself.

photo credit: ChrisGoldNYCreative Commons License

Emotional Triggers in the Environment

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). Emotional Triggers in the Environment. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Jan 2012
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