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How To Identify and Deal With Emotional Triggers

Our emotions are complex. They change all the time based on what’s happening in the world around us. When someone is in recovery from alcohol or drug abuse, one of the obstacles they face in situations in life that cause the urge to use again. Known as triggers, they can be the result of a person, an event, or a situation that causes stress, anxiety, or any negative emotional response in our lives.  

Emotional triggers are different for everyone. For most, triggers are centered around each person’s individual experiences. They can come from external sources or internal feelings, and they make it difficult to think clearly or cause an overreaction like returning to substance abuse. There’s lots of information about getting help after something has happened, but it’s possible to identify emotional triggers so you can avoid, reduce, or even eliminate them from impacting your life altogether.  

What Is an Emotional Trigger?

An emotional trigger is a strong emotional response to an external stimulus or event that results in an intense emotional response. It can be triggered by something as simple as a smell, sound, or sight, and can evoke feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, sadness, or any other emotion. For individuals struggling with addiction, these triggers can cause strong cravings to use and abuse drugs and alcohol. 

Identifying your emotional triggers can be a crucial step in the addiction recovery process. Being aware of potential triggers and how to deal with them appropriately can help individuals manage cravings, minimize the risk of relapse, and move toward sustained sobriety. 

What Are the Different Types of Triggers?

Emotional triggers are a normal part of life. They can come from sources such as our environment, relationships, work, or past experiences. It is important to understand the different types of emotional triggers and other symptoms like anxiety or stress and how they affect us to be able to best manage them. Recognizing your triggers is the only way to avoid and control the emotional and physical symptoms they bring. There are four main types of triggers people deal with; external, internal, trauma, and symptom.  

External Triggers 

The broadest category of triggers, external triggers come from the world around us. A person can be a trigger, as can a toxic relationship. A situation or place can be triggering. Certain times of the year can be a trigger. Ads on TV can be triggers. The list goes on. External triggers can be the most difficult to overcome, but thankfully they’re also usually the easiest to identify and avoid.   

Internal Triggers 

Internal triggers are more challenging to identify as they don’t come from the outside world, rather they come from our internal thoughts, feelings, or emotions. If you’re having a bad day, it may trigger drinking alcohol or using drugs to self-medicate. Feeling unwanted in a relationship or any aspect of life can be the source of internal triggers. Feelings of anxiety or depression can also act as internal triggers and cause poor decision-making as someone attempts to feel normal again.  

Trauma Triggers 

Traumatic events in life can often be the source of emotional triggers. For instance, people who get into car accidents may feel nervous or uncomfortable when they drive down the same stretch of road where the accident happened. If you recently lost a loved one, seeing their photo or something of theirs might cause a negative emotional response.  

Symptom Triggers 

Like internal triggers, symptom triggers are the result of our internal wellness. If someone isn’t getting enough sleep, not maintaining healthy eating practices, or exercising, these may be triggers to abuse substances. For example, feeling tired might trigger someone to want to use stimulants for more energy. Eating junk food and not exercising may cause issues with self-worth, which could lead someone to drink or use drugs as an escape.   

Coping With Emotional Triggers

Taking a few moments to pause and reflect on what you’re feeling can help you identify the source of your emotions. Ask questions like “Where was I when the feelings started? Who was I with? What was happening?” These questions can help narrow down the source of the trigger.  

Once you’ve identified the source, try to separate yourself from it so that it doesn’t have as big of an impact on you. This may mean taking some time to yourself, engaging in activities that make you feel less overwhelmed, or talking to someone who can provide a listening ear and understanding. Everyone’s coping strategy will be different, so it’s important to learn how to deal with triggering situations from clinical behavioral health professionals.  

It’s important to learn to recognize any negative thoughts that may come up during this process as they can have an even greater impact on your emotions. Practice being mindful of these thoughts and focus on more positive, productive ones instead. It may be helpful to seek help from a treatment facility to help you work through any issues or emotions that may be too overwhelming for you to handle alone. With practice and help from behavioral health professionals, the better able you will be to manage your emotions in an effective way. 

Can Dual-Diagnosis Treatment Help? 

Dual-diagnosis treatment centers specialize in providing mental health care to people who have both a mental illness and an addiction. Rehab facilities like South Coast Behavioral Health provide comprehensive, innovative health programs that address co-occurring conditions at the same time. This type of dual diagnosis program is more effective than treating only one condition at a time. By considering the interactions between two conditions, treatment professionals develop treatment plans that are tailored to each client’s unique needs.  

Dual-diagnosis treatment centers provide both inpatient and outpatient services, depending on the individual’s needs. Inpatient programs offer 24-hour care and support, while outpatient programs provide more flexible scheduling options for those who need less intensive treatment. Treatment plans usually involve a combination of group therapy, counseling, medication management, and addiction education classes. With the right combination of therapies, dual-diagnosis treatment centers can help clients gain insight into their conditions, learn how to effectively manage their symptoms, build better relationships with family and friends, and reduce or eliminate substance abuse behaviors. 

If you’re worried that emotional triggers are getting too difficult to handle, it’s time to reach out for help. Remember that you’re not alone in your struggle against substance abuse and mental health. Call 866-881-1184 now and learn more.  


Evan Gove
Kelly McIntyre
Author Evan Gove
Medically Reviewed by Kelly McIntyre, MS, LMFT