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Knowing Your Emotions: Internal Triggers

ignoredEmotionally sensitive people react emotionally to most situations and often are quite aware of what triggered their emotions. Sometimes, though,  they don’t know why they are feeling what they are feeling.

Consumed by their feelings, they don’t think to determine the cause. However, identifying what triggered their feelings is helpful in knowing how to manage and accept the feelings.

If an emotion is justified, like feeling fear because someone looks like they are ready to hit you, then the emotion is giving you important information to act on. Taking action on a justified emotion is helpful, like volunteering to help at a shelter for the homeless when you are feeling sad about their plight.  If the emotion isn’t justified, then managing the emotion so you feel less emotional turmoil or upset is important.


When considering what triggers emotions, look at your internal experience as well as in the environment around you. Sometimes your emotions are triggered by thoughts that you have. That can confuse others because they can’t see what is upsetting you.  For example, let’s say you are very concerned about the homeless and those who don’t have enough to eat. You go with a friend to a restaurant and notice all the food they are throwing out. You become very upset because you think about the people who are hungry and are unable to enjoy your lunch. You feel an urge to isolate because of the pain you feel when you venture out.

Thoughts about others’ actions are often triggering.  You may spend time thinking about the reasons someone said what they did or why they didn’t ask about something that happened to you. It can be easy to decide they don’t like you or don’t care about what happens to you. Sometimes emotionally sensitive people have high criteria for themselves as friends and may use this same criteria to determine whether others care about them. This leads to hurt feelings and lost relationships.

Thoughts about past events can also be triggering. A date on the calendar may trigger thoughts of a pet that died. Holidays could trigger thoughts of relationships that have been lost. Seeing someone volunteer could trigger thoughts of what you believe you haven’t done to help others. Passing a church or place of worship  could trigger thoughts that lead to guilt.

Thoughts about the future can also be upsetting. Thinking of painful outcomes that might happen triggers emotional pain.


Secondary emotions can be triggered by primary emotions. For example, suppose someone cuts in front of you in a long line to purchase tickets to a popular movie. Others might shrug it off or tell the person to go to the back of the line, then they’re done with the incident.

You feel angry, but then you become frightened. Your anger scared you. Maybe because you know that your anger is more intense than others or perhaps because you’ve been frightened in the past by the anger of others. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with anger because you have seen anger hurt others and you don’t want to do that. You’re likely to think about the incident over and over. Your emotions grow so intense you can’t enjoy the movie.

Emotional reasoning can increase the intensity of your emotions. Emotional reasoning is the idea that because we feel something it must be true. If you feel like no one likes you, then it must be true. If you feel scared, then something bad must be going to happen. If you feel like you’re going to fail the test, then you will. Accepting emotions as facts will create unnecessary upset. Acting on emotions as if they were facts can cause difficult situations and additional pain.  Imagine not taking a test you had studied for because you felt like you would fail.

Initial Steps to Take

The stress reaction that accompanies painful thoughts is damaging to the body. The brain reacts to thoughts almost the same as the real event. Learning to manage the thoughts and unjustified emotions can decrease your stress.

Once you’ve identified the trigger, you may feel some relief immediately.  Sometimes understanding what upset you gives your rational mind the opportunity to manage the emotion. For example, knowing that you are upset about food being thrown away allows you to remember that you volunteer at the food bank or that it isn’t in your power to change the situation in that moment.

Remember that thoughts are just thoughts.  People’s thoughts may or may not be accurate. Keep in mind that you can’t be sure your thoughts are facts until you get the evidence. Look for evidence before accepting thoughts as true.

Remember feeling something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.  Or that it isn’t true. Checking out the evidence is important.

Be mindful.  Staying in the present, not thinking of the past or what might happen in the future, can help regulate emotions.

Being an emotionally sensitive person can be a gift. Learning to manage the emotions so they add to your life rather than make life more difficult is an important step to take.


photo credit: ConfettCreative Commons Licensei

Knowing Your Emotions: Internal Triggers

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). Knowing Your Emotions: Internal Triggers. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Sep 2012
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