Co-Parenting After Divorce: How to Cope with Emotional Triggers


Triggers: we know they have warnings, but what exactly are they? You may have heard the term tossed around loosely or used ironically in the media. But a trigger is much more than a click-bait term. It’s definition even exists beyond Urban Dictionary. Triggers are real life events that elicit very real reactions.

So what is a “Trigger”?

A trigger is a thing or event that causes an uncomfortable psychological response. Essentially, triggers are stimuli that act as reminders of a previous traumatic experience. They set us off by inducing overwhelming feelings of distress. Unaware, we shift into panic mode and we instantaneously react, neglecting a moment to reflect on our emotions. It’s an outburst of frustration and anger as a result of the past pain inflicted. Some of us may become anxious and flee from a specific trigger, while others may become angered and fight. Triggers are unique to the individual, that’s why it’s important to learn how to recognize what yours are. 

How do you recognize a trigger? 

Triggers, like all things in nature, follow a pattern. Try to notice when your feelings of distress emerge. Do they happen at a specific time or place? After seeing a particular person or a familiar face? When you hear a specific song or sound? A smell? A topic of discussion? They can be anything that reminds you of a bad experience. If you can determine what you experienced before becoming upset, you will find your trigger. 

Triggers are difficult to identify

Although present in everyday life, triggers can hide in plain sight. Triggers are not always easily identifiable. They can linger in the unconscious, outside of our awareness. Sometimes in order to find them you have to do some emotional exploring. This means turning your gaze inward,  reflecting on your actions and becoming self-aware. Give yourself permission to ask yourself: “Why do I feel this way?” It’s taking a moment to pause and pay attention to what’s happening internally. Becoming present with your emotions is a challenging process to undertake. It’s helpful to start out by keeping track of how you feel in a journal. By writing down and taking notes of your day to day feelings you’ll begin to form an inventory of emotions from which you can create a pattern. There’s no denying that it’s a difficult journey to go through alone, that’s why seeking help from a professional, like a licensed therapist, is always recommended. A therapist is a neutral listener who will guide you through the process of self-reflection and help you get to the bottom line of what’s making you upset.  

You might be thinking: triggers and exes are one and the same. You’re not wrong. 

Exes are universal triggers. They are the physical embodiment of our pain. A walking reminder of the past relationship. For those with children who have to interact with their ex regularly, seeing them, to put it nicely, can make life less pleasant. Who are we kidding, having to see your ex often sucks! With that being said, identifying your ex as your trigger is crucial in helping you regulate your emotions towards them. Knowing how your ex triggers you is the first step in learning how to manage it. Acknowledging the cause of your pain, makes it easier to overcome. The more you practice confronting their emotional toll on you, the more you can mitigate your IRL encounters with your ex. Regulating your emotions in front of your ex sets a good example for your children. Kids learn behavior from the adults that surround them. Your emotionally charged actions trickle down to them and they can experience your pain second-hand. If it’s difficult for you to regulate yourself, then you can’t expect to regulate your child’s behavior any better. “A dysregulated adult can’t regulate a dysregulated child.” 

It’s all about accountability. 

When we’re accountable for our behaviors, we repair damages that we might have done. We become present with our emotions and we think before we react. We can manage our pain by externalizing. When we verbalize our pain we externalize. We move the pain from the inside and we release it outside. It can no longer weigh us down. We can learn how to manage it. If the pain returns we know how to relocate it. Having emotional accountability is not just about identifying your triggers, it’s acknowledging their effect on you and then allowing yourself to regain control of your behavior. We can’t control what other people do, but we can control how we act towards them. Accountability allows you to model healthy behavior for your children. When they see you yelling at your partner, they’re going to think that yelling is acceptable. They’re going to repeat that behavior. It becomes a cycle, another pattern, and it filters throughout the whole family. It’s hard to take accountability. Who likes to admit when they’re wrong? Who likes to admit when they’re not okay or doing the best that they can do? Nobody does. But, when you think about the relief that comes with identifying your trauma and its trigger, it becomes a journey worth embarking on. It becomes a journey towards regaining control. And having control over your actions and feelings is freeing.

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