Let’s Talk Relationships: Triggers happen: What to do when your buttons get pushed


For the Recorder

Published: 07-05-2024 12:41 PM

Modified: 07-05-2024 1:22 PM

We all get “triggered” at times in significant relationships with loved ones. This happens when we react so strongly to what the other person is saying or doing that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are out of proportion to the current situation. Our emotions can be considered extreme or over-the-top.

What is happening here? Past traumas and unresolved emotional wounds are activated when present situations or behaviors remind us (often unconsciously) of those past painful experiences. These may include accidents, abuse, neglect, poverty, addiction, or loss. Even some less dramatic experiences can create big reactions in our relationships, such as having had unreasonable parental expectations in childhood, harsh criticism, failing in school, being bullied by peers, and mistreatment by past partners, including infidelity.

When we get triggered, we may find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, fearful, anxious, angry, deeply hurt, or insecure. Any painful experiences from our past, even ones from long ago, are stored in the limbic system of the brain. Our brain then views the current trigger as a threat, as if it were the same as the original painful event. When this happens, we automatically react with a “fight, flee or freeze” response. We might lash out and yell, criticize, and blame (the “fight” response). We might leave or withdraw emotionally and verbally (the “flee” response). Another common behavior is to act like a “deer in headlights,” unable to respond at all (the “freeze” response). These behaviors often arise automatically. They are actually strategies, usually unconscious, that we use to deal with the pain that comes along with feeling threatened.

For example, Partner A came from a family where she never felt comfortable expressing her opinions, wants, feelings and needs, as they were not taken seriously. One day after dinner, Partner B decided where they would go on vacation and made reservations, without asking what her thoughts were. After silencing herself for years, she blurted out, “You really don’t care about me at all, do you? It never matters to you what I think or want! You only think about yourself!”

Partner A was triggered. The only thing she could manage to do was to attack. Her “fight” response inevitably made things worse between them, with arguments continuing on into the night. I’m here to say that, as hard as it may be to believe, situations like this can be worked with in a much more positive way, actually leading to strengthening, rather than weakening the relationship. The rest of this column focuses on how to do this.

An opportunity for self-awareness and compassion

I’d like to invite you to consider being triggered as a springboard into deeper self-awareness. It can lead to a more profound understanding of ourselves and each other, thereby strengthening the relationship. When a partner understands that the other’s past hurts are surfacing in the present triggered moment, they may more easily offer compassion, understanding and patience.

What can we do when we’re triggered?

When not handled well, getting triggered can negatively impact the trust, stability and quality of a significant relationship. Let’s dive into what we can do when we suddenly find ourselves feeling out of control and in the throes of strong feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

Notice and pause

Noticing that we are feeling triggered, before we react, is the first step. When we feel a sudden surge of anger, defensiveness, or a desire to withdraw, we can pause to acknowledge the feelings, instead of acting them out. We may notice accompanying responses in our body, such as a knot in the stomach, tightness in the throat, or a racing heart, which are important signals that we are triggered. When we notice our emotional and physical states, and then pause without reacting right away, we interrupt the automatic fight, flee or freeze reactions. At this point, we can tell ourselves: “I am just triggered right now. Not everything may be as it seems. Let me take a moment.”


A technique called square breathing can be a powerful way to regulate one’s nervous system. It goes like this: Breathe in for five seconds. Hold your breath for five seconds. Breathe out for five seconds and hold for five seconds. Repeat this cycle five to 10 times. Notice any changes in how you are feeling physically and emotionally. This process often brings a much needed calm.


It is helpful to get curious about our own reactions and ask ourselves, with self-compassion: “What is going on for me right now?” “Why am I having such a strong reaction?” “Are my present feelings and thoughts familiar?” “Are they rooted in my past?” There might very well be a strong connection between our present reactions and difficult things that we’ve experienced in the past.

Share with your partner

Telling our partner that we are triggered is way more productive than staying stuck in believing that they are making us feel the way we do. Owning our reactions does not mean we are blaming ourselves or making ourselves wrong for having them. Genuinely sharing with our partner about feeling triggered is a vulnerable thing to do. When we share vulnerably, we invite our partner to know and understand the more tender parts of ourselves. When each partner understands and accepts that triggers do happen, it feels safer for both partners to communicate when one or the other is triggered. Learning the stories behind a partner’s triggers will bring understanding of where the strong feelings are coming from. Though many people shy away from sharing vulnerably, for fear of appearing weak or flawed, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable can build closeness even in the most difficult moments. Being open in this way is actually one of the essential ingredients in a thriving, flourishing relationship!

No one enjoys the experience of getting triggered. However, it is part of the human experience, as we all have had hard stuff happen in our lives. It is only natural to react strongly at times. When you feel triggered, I am cheering you on to notice and pause, breathe, self-reflect, and share with your partner. Instead of allowing triggers to drive you apart, following these four steps can truly bring you closer.

Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with NonViolent Communication which serve as the foundation of her work as a Relationship Coach. For more information visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.