Hot, Holy & Humorous

We All Have Emotional Triggers. What Are Yours?

In recent years, I’ve heard a lot of discussion around emotional triggers. An emotional trigger is an event, condition, or sensory experience that evokes a negative reaction. Knowing one’s triggers can be important for treatment of and recovery from trauma, addiction or compulsive behaviors, and anxiety or depression. But the truth is, we all have triggers.

We may not use that terminology, and the oft-used synonym “stressors” might be more relatable. But think about your own marriage and when you had that unexpected blow-up, that emotional shutdown, or that pity party for one. Most readers can think of at least one. What made it happen? Was it solely what your spouse did, or were there other factors that triggered your response?

Some Common Triggers

Rehabilitation programs and 12-step meetings often use an acronym for four main stressors an addict needs to watch for: HALT. That stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Each of those states—two physical, two emotional—can trigger a craving for the addictive substance or compulsive behavior.

Odds are the last time you felt a loss of emotional or behavioral control, those or other factors were present. There’s a reason why “hangry” is now in the dictionary, and this is a popular meme online:

When I say I'm hungry, we've got about 27 minutes until I'm a completely different person.

We see this with our children too. Tantrums happen far more often when a child is hungry or exhausted. Trying to rationalize with a toddler—or a teenager!—who hasn’t had enough sleep can be a challenge at best.

The same thing occurs for us when it comes to marital tension or conflict. Or even being able to accept a “not tonight” answer to your sexual initiation. You may respond with kindness and compassion 95% of the time, but that other 5% of the time, it’s not just the thing between you and your spouse but whatever stressors or triggers bubbling up that caused things to spill over. You find yourself furious with your spouse, in a puddle of tears wondering why s/he doesn’t love you, or falling back into a bad habit or addictive behavior in an effort to cope.

Your Personal Triggers

HALT doesn’t cover all the potential triggers, of course. You may have different ones. Consider the last time you felt out of control and what was happening before or around that time. What was going on with you physically and emotionally? Had other things happened in the week or day that tapped out your emotional resources? Could you have made some different decisions to head off the reaction by addressing your stressors? It’s worth taking stock and identifying your own particular triggers.

Recently, I decided that I was drinking too much wine. I enjoy a glass in early evening or with a meal, but at times I found myself pouring a second glass or a third without thinking it through. I’m taking a 100+-day fast from all alcohol, but as part of my reset, I began to ask myself why. Why was I inclined to drink more than I really wanted to? And I realized that I relate to two of the HALT stressors (angry and lonely), but not the others. A personal inventory revealed that being tense and experiencing pain (I have a pinched nerve right now) also triggered the craving. Being me, I decided to make a list that was alliterative and also added one more, and now I know to be more cautious when I’m feeling:

  • Achy
  • Alone
  • Adrift
  • Angry
  • Anxious

Your list might overlap mine or be completely different. But take some time to think through what stressors lead to marital conflict, individual overwhelm, or loss of control.

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Impact of Triggers on Marriage

In my higher desire wife community, we often encourage one another to accept sexual rejection for what it is, rather than allowing it to color our entire view of the marriage. (Yes, rejection can mean more, but oftentimes, it’s the lower desire spouse’s own issues with sex apart from their love for their mate.) And yet, nearly every wife in that group has had one or more times she just lost it. Perhaps she lashed out at her husband. Or she fell into a pit of despair with only her tears and a pint of ice cream to keep her company. Maybe she was sorely tempted to walk away and/or find someone else “who’ll appreciate me for who I am.” Most of those times, a stressor preceded that moment.

It’s understandable. We’re human! We are complex creatures who, at any given time, are dealing with multiple sensations, stimuli, thoughts, and feelings. When several negative ones come together, it can create a perfect storm that makes our emotions spiral like a tornado. We get caught up in the whirlwind and don’t know how to get out.

Husbands have also reported this feeling, especially when it comes to the temptation of pornography. (To be clear, women also struggle with porn. This is just an example.) Such men may be going along fine for a while, but then stressors hit, and they find themselves turning to porn as a coping mechanism. Their behavior in that moment may feel like something they didn’t consciously choose, but rather fell back into—having been triggered by other stimuli.

But it doesn’t have to be that big an issue. It could be a marital spat that didn’t have to happen, except that one or both of you were overly tired. Or perhaps a conversation that broke down into a stalemate because you were already dealing with too much anxiety about other things.

Whatever it is, and whether it’s simply relational or also sexual, your marriage feels the damaging effects of emotions and behaviors triggered or amplified by other factors.

It’s Not Enough to Avoid Triggers

Knowing your personal triggers can help you:

  1. Avoid or manage them better
  2. Share your emotional state with your spouse
  3. Choose better timing for interactions with your spouse

Avoiding or managing your triggers might mean getting more sleep, making sure you eat according to a schedule, or keeping snacks around. It might mean reaching out for more social connections to address loneliness or getting therapy to deal with anger or feelings of being adrift in life.

But sometimes, no matter how well we plan, stressors come our way. We can’t avoid them entirely. In which case, it’s good to share your emotional state with your spouse. For example, if your husband or wife wants to talk about something when you’re overly tired, let him/her know you’re just too spent for that discussion but you’re eager to have it another time. Name the time, and then follow through! But also make sure you don’t launch that conversation or even sexual initiation when you wouldn’t be able to handle a “not now” with grace. Choose a better time, when both of you are less stressed and more likely to have an effective interaction.

It doesn’t stop there, though. What can you do to release the tension and negativity caused by your triggers? You have to replace poor coping mechanisms with better options.

Regarding my wine-fast, I’m planning to use this time to practice identifying my triggers and then find positive ways to channel that energy. If I’m feeling anxious, I can go for a walk, exercise, listen to music, meditate, read a book, pray, call a friend, or get a massage. I don’t have to simply say, “I’m anxious, but I won’t drink,” and then sit there in all my anxiety fighting the craving. No, I can proactively address my stressors with alternative activities.

So can you! What can you do instead of having an outburst? Turning to porn? Tumbling back into depression? Picking a fight with your spouse? Starting the silent treatment? Drinking too much?

Be willing to get outside help! Many of our negative go-to coping mechanisms can’t be solved on your own. Many resources exist to help you successfully overcome addiction, compulsive behaviors, mood disorders, porn use, and more. Seek out Christian-based sites that can help you navigate your journey to recovery.

Heaven: Always a Good Place to Turn

Regardless of whether you could benefit from outside help or simply need to make some personal changes in your life, you can always turn to God. If you feel like you’re losing control, have that outburst or breakdown in His presence. Let the Psalms guide you on how to cry out to Him and accept His healing. You may or may not feel better immediately, but over time, you’ll definitely feel the impact of His presence.

God already knows your triggers, but He wants to be there to help you address them and discover wholeness that only He can give.

“Come close to God and He will come close to you.” James 4:8a

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10 thoughts on “We All Have Emotional Triggers. What Are Yours?”

  1. There is nothing left for passion,
    no emotions move my heart.
    I am neither brave nor dashing,
    and at the end I stand apart,
    and I know you wish I might
    show some joy, and show some rage,
    but it’s been too long a fight
    and I am on another page.
    Please don’t think me as despairing,
    giving up and giving in.
    Really, I am not past caring,
    but I know I cannot win,
    and would prefer to leave this place
    in a quiet state of grace.

    1. It’s good to hear from you, Andrew. Though I’m obviously sad that you’ve had to deal with chronic pain and illness for so long. May God give you comfort.

  2. Lack of genuine sunlight and physical activity affects me greatly. Doing projects outside on a sunny day greatly enhances my emotional well being (you guess right, I have Seasonal Affective Disorder). I also discovered that the sunlight and physical activity is a healthy coping mechanism for my sexless marriage!

    1. I had this a couple weeks ago…was in a bit of a funk (I think I had a bad sleep due to kids waking up? Don’t entirely remember.) So instead of slugging through the normal tasks (laundry, dishes, etc.), I chose to rake a bunch instead and felt a lot better within half an hour!

  3. I likely do have triggers in the immediate sense (usually in the form of snark or lack of consideration from others) but for me it seems to be not so much the trigger itself but the fact that my stress “tank” is already full due to overstimulation, such that it just takes a nudge to push me over the edge. And even then the overflow is more internal than external. Toward the end of an unusually busy spring with little downtime (which for me means solitude and freedom), I finally dissolved into tears after running on fumes for several days, while trying to get packed up to return home from our second out-of-state trip.

    Hungry? Probably, from the stress of the preceding several weeks, in addition to having to curtail my dinners due to repeatedly late eating times (over which I had no control). Angry? Irritated at least, at having had to play the role of the good daughter-in-law while touring and sightseeing, when what I wanted was to hide away with a book and take a nap. Lonely? Perhaps, but not in the traditional sense as the problem was not lack of company but not being able to express what I was feeling publicly (to the extent that I myself was aware), and otherwise having little privacy to speak to my husband – if he would even understand. Tired? Absolutely – exhausted even, physically and emotionally. My husband let me go to bed while he finished up the laundry.

    We left the next day without incident, and he waited for me to broach the topic once we were home (and alone). As we talked he was able to see what I’d been experiencing – and to take some notes for future reference – with four different events to prepare for over a six-week period, with little to no breaks in between. This kind of schedule may be normal and even welcomed by many, and even though I was a good deal busier in a past life I wonder now if I ever handled it well even with near-daily exercise, given my ever-present cravings and perpetual state of distraction. In retrospect it seemed that this whole experience has shined a light on how my brain is wired (or not) and pointed to the kinds of things I need to focus on, given the likelihood that I’m already close to my stress threshold much of the time. I spent the first couple of days decompressing after we arrived home, but even though I’m moving back toward a “normal” routine it may take several more days yet to return to the baseline, and even more to figure out how to further de-stress so as to better weather vacations, hosting and other disruptions. It will be another six weeks until we head out of town again so hopefully I will have figured out a thing or two by then.

    1. Oh wow, that does seem like a tough experience. I’m also an introvert who needs downtime! I have learned to build it into the schedule as much as possible…and not apologize for it. Extroverts often don’t understand but may eventually see that I’m more energetic and engaged when I get the respites I need. In addition to that stress, being around another family system, especially the in-laws, can be produce tension. It can feel like trying to shove your square self into a circle hole, wanting to belong but knowing you’re not quite a fit.

      Rest up! And I’m glad you learned some lessons.

      1. I am fortunate to have a husband who is also an introvert (though not as far toward the extreme end as I am) and can either understand what I’m experiencing or take steps to watch my back in stressful situations. And my in-laws are actually great; under different circumstances I probably would have enjoyed the trip very much (or at least more), apart from us all being on top of each other in our suite. Still, I do feel a bit judged at times for taking time for myself, as though others are having to adjust their plans around me, wait for me to join them, etc., so maybe I need to address this in some way. My mother-in-law would like me to join her for a church tea in a few weeks, but I think I’ll have to decline as even this will be too soon, and the next trip my husband and I take will be just us.

  4. J,
    I hope your nerve pain gets better 🙏. My wife, in her mid 50s, has the same problem. As for your wine fast, I sometimes struggle as a Christian about even having wine in the house. I appreciate your honesty and transparency. As for triggers, anytime I’m asked (or usually told in a demanding voice) by my wife to scrub the shower or pick weeds, I tend to get a little irritated. But hey, no marriage is perfect.
    Blessings 🙏

    1. Thanks! And yeah, I can understand the irritation. Oftentimes, it’s a tone of voice that the person speaking doesn’t even realize is coming across the way it is! At least, that’s what I’ve experienced in my marriage (for both of us).

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