Getting Emotional vs Getting Triggered

Something happened earlier today that caused me to question the difference between getting emotional and getting triggered. Is there a difference? And if so, what is the difference? Are the two mutually exclusive? Or can they overlap one another?

I’ve realized that getting emotional and getting triggered and two different things entirely. Although I’m sure they can overlap, they are in themselves two separate experiences.

What caused me to come to this conclusion was a situation that happened with a friend. She shared something with me that upset and disturbed me. Something that had happened where she had been hurt by another person. I felt a variety of different emotions that progressed from one to the next, and took approximately this course: concern, sadness, worry, anger, and finally helplessness. I wanted to swoop in and change the situation for her, so she would never have to experience this sort of thing again. Or try to convince her to change the situation for herself.

I later had to write her and apologize. I had made value judgments on the situation, and I had come from a place of thinking I knew what was best for her when in fact, only she can truly know what’s best for herself. I can only offer input and feedback when asked. However, in my explanation to this friend, I used a word to describe my reaction that I hardly ever use to describe myself: emotional.

That got me thinking. Why didn’t I say I was “triggered”? After all, I use the word triggered in my daily life much more often than I use the word emotional. And that got me thinking about the difference between the two, and asking myself if there is a difference at all. After some thought I realized that yes, they are two very different things. And when I told my friend that I had gotten “emotional,” it was because I hadn’t gotten triggered at all!

The difference, I realize, is this:

The process of getting triggered has its roots in past trauma. If someone has been traumatized by something in their past, be it a small trauma or a big trauma (is there really such thing as a “small” trauma?), then certain elements relating to the trauma – be it emotions, body sensations, dissociation, or any combination of these – can get activated by an event in real life. Therefore the reaction to the current situation or event is often disproportionate to the actual situation, and instead is an elevated response based on past events. This is, of course, an unconscious process.

We may not even be aware that we are triggered, and in fact we may think that the present situation calls for our strong response. This used to be the case with me before I became conscious of the process of getting triggered. But once I learned that this is what is happening, even though I may not be able to stop or avoid getting triggered, I am armed with the knowledge that this is what is happening, and that knowledge alone is worth its weight in gold.

So then what does it mean to simply get emotional? I’m sure this is debatable, but the conclusion that I came to was that your reaction in the moment (and when I say “reaction” I am referring here specifically to strong emotions) has completely to do with the situation at hand and is not connected to any past trauma. Let me make a distinction here and say this: I am not saying that our emotions in this type of situation are not linked to past hurt. Because the truth is, all of our past experiences, both good and bad, shape us and help determine the way we think and the way we live in the world, emotions included. But I am saying that being simply emotional (versus specifically being triggered) has no roots in past trauma. It is a process we all go through when strong feelings overtake us. It is a process that is completely natural.

Some people might be reading this and thinking, well yeah, duh. Isn’t it obvious? Of course being emotional is natural.

Well… it’s not obvious to me. Because I have been through extensive trauma, to the point where I developed dissociative mechanisms to manage the intensity of the traumatic events, none of my reactions or internal processes ever seem “normal” or “natural.” So even when I experience something that everyone experiences in the world – ie, being emotional – that many people don’t even wonder about or question, I have to ask myself, what does being emotional even mean? And how does this differ from other times when I have a strong reaction that I call being “triggered”?

So… I’ve concluded that the response I had toward my friend, albeit a bit extreme (I did get quite emotional), was completely natural. I was wanting to protect her. And my mind went through all the emotions that any mind might go through when a good friend is in pain and they can’t take the pain away.


Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves of these things. Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves that we are “normal.” 🙂



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3 responses to “Getting Emotional vs Getting Triggered

  1. I think this is a very interesting post! Something I have thought about before, but not thought about it so thoroughly as you did.

    I really never heard or understood the word “trigger” until I entered therapy. I assumed, (since I had been told this by caregivers) that I would get “too emotional”, whereas in reality I was really being triggered.

    The level of emotions need to be taken into account I suppose. For me, there are few mild emotions…I am either very emotional or very numb. So if someone tells me something that in normal circumstances would make a normal person feel “emotional”, I become VERY EMOTIONAL, aka triggered. I consider any situation that makes a person irrationally emotional(or unfittingly unemotional) would also be considered triggering.

    There is also the argument that any response other than an empathic response would be considered a trigger due to trauma…our past experiences can cause us to become more passionate, angry, or hurt about a situation that would make someone else respond in only empathy.

    Again, great post!

    • Thank you for your response!

      I too always felt like if it were VERY emotional then it must mean trigger. However, the situation I described above made it clear to me this is not the case. I was very emotional without actually being triggered! What a revelation to realize this is possible!

  2. Bourbon

    I actually wondered if you’d got so emotional BECAUSE you had been triggered – but you cleared that up for me with this – you didn’t. You got emotional because you care. 🙂 Thank you for caring x

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