How to EMPOWER Yourself Against Emotional Triggers

Have you ever felt emotionally triggered because of something you saw on the news, in media, or in real life? Today, the Savvy Psychologist is going to talk about vicarious trauma and an acronym that can help you cope.

Dr. Monica Johnson
5-minute read
Episode #382

There are so many things happening in the world that are potentially triggering for folks. Events in the news, like people getting murdered or being the victim of serious bodily harm, or similar themes depicted in entertainment we consume can trigger us.

What is a triggering event?

Let's definite what a triggering event is. A trigger or stressor is anything that can lead to a negative emotional reaction. When an individual says they are "triggered," what they typically mean is that the stimuli brought on or worsened symptoms related to their mental health. These could be a wide array of symptoms related to mood, anxiety, PTSD, and more that we'll discuss in more detail later.

Triggers are often connected to trauma. Vicarious trauma relates to stressors that are directed and witnessed by others. There are also related types of trauma which include race-based trauma and other types of minority stress like those related to sexuality, gender, and religion. These sorts of trauma describe the chronically high levels of stress faced by members of oppressed groups due to the interpersonal experiences of bias, prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes. You can also have intergenerational trauma, which is trauma transferred from one generation to the next. These traumas can be related to systematic issues like racism or personal traumas like domestic violence or child sexual abuse.

If you find that certain things are triggering for you, it’s not that you're being too sensitive. The effects of these kinds of trauma are very real, and you're not alone in experiencing them. It's difficult to witness or experience traumatic events once; imagine if it’s happening repetitively. I don’t think I can count on my hands how many people I have watched being killed on tape. I feel uneasy every time I witness a police officer put their knees on someone’s back or neck after the tragedy of George Floyd. This hits on all 3 of the types of trauma for me as a Black American.

Some of the effects of trauma that you might experience include fear, hypervigilance, depression, rage or anger, feeling lonely or disconnected, memory problems, headaches, insomnia, body aches, decreased self-esteem, hopelessness, and feelings of shame or guilt.

What is one to do about all of this? I wish I could say that the world would be a drastically better place tomorrow, but that’s unlikely. That scope of change generally takes time. If you remember back to my allyship episode from last summer, some of that sentiment resonates here. If you want to feel empowered in the long run, you have to pace yourself and listen to your limits around these types of triggering events. Here is an acronym I’ve crafted to E.M.P.O.W.E.R. you to find equilibrium between being informed and active when facing the world's stressors and taking a time out so you can rest.

E is for Enforce limits

Know your limits and adhere to them in a non-judgmental fashion. Remind yourself that it is acceptable to take a break and that you are not abandoning the situation or others. Set a time limit that seems reasonable to you to use distraction (this can range from five minutes to days depending on the scenario).

Perform Opposite Action to the guilt that comes up. These false feelings of guilt will keep you tuned in when you need to tune out. Sometimes we think we don’t deserve a break because so much is happening in the world when in fact that is the very reason why you need to take one.

It’s probably a terrible joke, but I tell my patients it’s okay to take a break because the world will still be horrible tomorrow. Seriously, it’s unlikely you’re going to miss out on the big show; the world isn’t better off if you’re burned out and jaded.

M is for Mental barrier

Create a mental barrier between yourself and the distressing event. This can be done internally and externally. Internal barriers involve mentally pushing away from the stressful event. You can build an imaginary wall inside your mind between yourself and it. Imagine putting it in a time-out, or setting a mental timer before you're allowed to attend to stressful images or thoughts.

External ways of creating a mental barrier include a social media and news blackout or temporarily muting or avoiding individuals that increase stress. This is often the hardest part for folks, but you do need to disconnect from the world occasionally. Our minds, hearts, and bodies need to recuperate from all the stimuli we consume on a daily basis, especially the stressors!

P is for Purposeful participation

It can be difficult to feel helpless or hopeless regarding the world or your own experiences. One of the ways to combat that is to find small ways to give back as often as you can. Seek out purpose because that is where you discover your power. Give back to others in small and meaningful ways. This can be volunteering, helping a friend or family member, retweeting an important cause, or giving someone a hug.

O is for Other emotions and thoughts

Do things that replace your negative thoughts and emotions with neutral or opposite ones. This can include watching emotional or comedic TV shows, reading a book, looking through old letters, playing games on your phone, or singing a song in your head.

Remember all that depression and rage I discussed earlier? We need to soothe those emotions by activating other emotions. As you may have guessed already, those in healthcare professions or caregivers can also get vicarious trauma through their work, so figuring out self-care is crucial! On a daily basis, I watch at least one comedic show as a way to bring light-hearted emotions into my life. You could stop me at random on the street and ask me what comedic show I’m currently watching and I could tell you without skipping a beat. Right now I’m rewatching King of the Hill.

W is for Wider focus

When we are triggered, the tendency to ruminate on negative thoughts creates an extremely narrow focus and intensifies the pain we are feeling. Having a wider focus involves healthy comparisons which can allow us to see
the bigger picture. This can include comparing your situation to a time when you actually felt worse and remembering that it became better over time, thinking about others that may be less fortunate than yourself, or thinking about others who are in similar situations and are coping the same (“I am not alone.”), worse (“I am not as bad as I sometimes think.”), or better (“By being skillful, I can improve how well I cope over time.”).

Other ways to expand your focus may be through gratitude journaling or simply acknowledging on a daily basis the things that went well. You can also switch up your media diet so that you're hearing about the wins that are happening in the world and not just the losses.

E is for Engage in activities

Do things that let you forget about your trauma momentarily. These could be enjoyable activities like spending time with a friend or going to the movies. It can also be more neutral activities like doing laundry or going grocery shopping. The point here is to distract your mind through activities so you have time to come down from the trigger.

R is for Regroup or reset

Check in with yourself to see if your overall arousal is low enough to re-engage with the situation at hand. What counts as low enough is largely defined by you, but here are some hints. Low enough typically does not mean 0/100. Define for yourself where your breaking point is—this is the number where things start to go downhill for you fast. Your “low enough” needs to be below that number. For instance, if your breaking point is 80, then you might determine that your low enough number is anything 60 or below. When your arousal is low enough, regroup and think about problem solving or other skills that may be useful in addressing the situation. If not, reset your break timer and come back to the situation later. This approach allows you to take a break without engaging in unhealthy avoidance. As always, it’s important to not judge how often you need to take breaks.

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.