How I Learned To Survive Intense Emotional Triggers After My Brutal Divorce

Self-care is key to overcoming emotional triggers.

Emotional woman and her daughter Bessi | Canva, Pablo Merchán Montes | Unsplash 

I loathe Christmas.

I know many people are shocked when I admit that. It sounds so incredibly grinchy and uncharitable.

I feel bad that I don’t get excited about Christmas anymore, but it’s just one big trigger for me after my divorce, and I have to emotionally brace myself every year.

These days, there aren’t many things that trigger me about my divorce. I’m like a battle-weary soldier who’s seen it all and has the scars to prove it. But I’m not bulletproof; things can still knock me around.


In the first two years after my divorce, I experienced intense emotional triggers.

An emotional trigger happens out of nowhere and is usually not something you can immediately recognize.



You may be feeling good and getting through each day reasonably well, and then, out of nowhere, you just start to feel weak, overwhelmed, anxious, guilty, hopeless, and a whole other slew of debilitating emotions can come up and grab you by the throat.


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When I was in the first two years after my divorce, I used to have this image in my head of the "platform rocking." I would picture myself standing on a tall platform tower.

All of a sudden, something (an emotional trigger) would come along and slam into the platform. It would start wildly rocking from side to side, and I would be desperately trying to hang on for dear life so I didn’t fall off and into the depths below.

I would be depleted, exhausted, anxious, teary, irritable, and almost a feeling of "bleeding out." Some days I didn’t know how I was going to get up in the morning and get my broken self to work.


It still amazes me to this day that I was able to function through some of those triggers. That’s why I often write about the fact that divorce teaches us that we have an inner resilience we had no idea we were capable of.

I began to notice that after a while, the platform would feel steady again. Maybe two days, maybe two weeks. It depended on the trigger and how I looked after my physical state while I was going through it. Self-care was the single biggest factor in making it through each trigger faster.

What causes these triggers?

The events that cause bad triggers will be different for each of us. I want to share some of mine to help you recognize when you may have experienced something that has slammed into your emotional "platform."

Here are some of the subtle ways I was catastrophically triggered in the first two years of my divorce:

  • After dropping one of my son’s friends back to his house after a playdate (he was eight years old at the time), he said to me, "Charlie’s lucky that his parents are both together. I wish mine were still together, too." Knife through my heart.
  • My five-year-old daughter asked me why we couldn’t all live together anymore. I said, "Dad and I are still friends, and we still love each other, but we can’t live together because it makes both of us sad." She looked at me puzzled and said, "But if you don’t live together, then the kids are sad." The guilt was unbearable.
  • After our first Christmas morning together as a separated family, my ex-husband left without us to go to his parents' house. As he walked down the driveway to leave, I saw him holding back tears. I felt like my whole body was ripping apart.
  • My ex’s new girlfriend asked to meet me before she met our kids. I had a coffee with her in the city, then drove home alone, feeling like I’d lost my kids to another woman. I felt like I was freefalling without a parachute. Not even human, just annihilated.
  • My son started having sleep trouble. Each night, he would lie awake and toss around for hours. This ratcheted up my guilt to new levels. I felt completely responsible for his struggles.
  • I was picking up the kids from a mutual friend’s house. I hadn’t seen her since we had told people we were separating. She came out to the car to see us off, looked at me, and said dramatically, "What about the kids?" as if we hadn’t thought about it. Seriously?

All of these events (and many, many others in those first two years) caused me to go from feeling like I was doing OK and handling my divorce to being tormented with intense guilt, grief, anxiety, and feelings of complete failure.

Failure is not a strong enough word. I felt like I had abandoned my children the way I was abandoned as a child.

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As it began to dawn on me that our marriage was dysfunctional and unhealthy, I had to accept the reality that our children were going to have to experience a divorce.


Trying to deal with that sort of pressure and self-loathing is crippling. The guilt stayed with me for so many years and was the root cause of my worst emotional triggers as I started the staggeringly slow process of trying to make it through each day.

You can not minimize the trauma and impact of what a divorce can do to you on an emotional and spiritual level. I don’t care what anyone says; this crap is real. It can take you to the darkest, most desolate places in your psyche and soul.



The triggers do stop. They do end. But when you’re first starting, you may not realize this. I know that I didn’t. When I was hit with these emotional tsunamis, I wondered if I was going to make it through. Dying felt like it would be a relief!


I didn’t feel equipped to deal with the relentless pain that each trigger brought, and I was frantically searching for a solution that never seemed to come.

After a while, though, I started to notice that there was an endpoint to each bad trigger. I would start to feel the pain lift, almost like I’d had a painkiller, and it was finally kicking in.

I’d be ok again, and then the next one would come. Sometimes, they lasted for days, for weeks. You could never really tell until you were in it.

One important thing that I observed was that if I hadn’t had enough sleep, was working too hard, or had been drinking, it took longer for the trigger to pass.


Yes, I exercised, ate well most of the time, and slept reasonably well. But I wasn’t perfect. Sometimes, it would be too much, and I just needed to escape the pain.

On the weeks that I was on my own, I’d distract myself by going out to a bar and having a few drinks with friends.

I used dating apps to meet people who would tell me I was attractive and loveable. All the things I wasn’t able to believe about myself.

I stayed at work long after everyone else had left the building so I didn’t have to go home and face the quietness of my new home.

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I began to see a pattern of what would make the triggers last longer and what would get me through them much faster.


This realization was a godsend, as once I mastered it, I felt stronger when the triggers came, and I could pull myself out of them in way less time.

Things that helped me recover faster:

  • moving my body
  • eating good food
  • early nights
  • reading supportive books about divorce
  • drinking plenty of water
  • writing in a journal
  • talking to someone who "got it."

Things that made the trigger last longer:

  • working long hours
  • staying up late
  • drinking alcohol
  • looking at social media
  • skipping exercise
  • eating junk food
  • isolating myself
  • dating apps

Emotional triggers are inevitable after a divorce. Part of the problem is that they are unpredictable, and you can never tell when they are coming or who is going to cause them. Being aware of what is happening and how to manage yourself through each one is the number one way to look after your mental health and get yourself through those first two years in a much better state.


There’s no sugarcoating the fact that it’s a rollercoaster ride. Up and down constantly. The goal is to try to come out of the downs as fast as possible and return to the "ups" to make our lives more manageable.

I hope that reading about some of my triggers and how I identified what made them pass faster helps you to handle the impact of your own as the holiday season approaches.

Be prepared, and you will handle whatever comes your way.

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Carol Madden is a writer, coach, lifelong learner, and champion of people realizing their potential.