How To Stop Someone Else's Triggers From Becoming Your Trauma

A psychologist shares the value of loving people deeply — as long as you don't borrow their emotional trouble.

two young women embrace in front of a tall building, one is happy, one is not Vovatol / shutterstock  

Most of us have had a best friend we love like family, someone we would do anything for. But maybe in those moments when she loses it, it's almost like her anxiety or anger is contagious.

You wonder, why is this seemingly innocuous situation so upsetting to me?

This can also happen with a partner. For instance, imagine going with your boyfriend to a family celebration after he’s had a fight with his mother. He’s a little nervous, and you begin to feel like you’re 6 years old again, like you did something wrong and are a bad girl. 


From then on, you may find yourself nervous when your best friend or partner might end up being triggered or becoming upset.

If so, you probably paused and thought, you've got to be kidding me, this isn't even my problem!

What’s happening is that you’re being triggered by someone else’s triggers.

RELATED: How To Keep Fears, Triggers & Past Traumas From Controlling Your Life

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First, understand what it means to be 'triggered'

Your brain stores most memories, even bad memories. A trigger is literally anything that can spark a conscious or unconscious memory. This doesn't need to be a negative experience, even good memories can be triggered by an outside source, like smelling your beloved grandfather's aftershave as a stranger passes on the street. 

The triggers that bother us are those where we are reliving a past emotional injury such as being rejected, or shamed. This leaves a mark in our memory like a physical injury.

This type of experience could evoke a conscious memory, for example, from when you were a child and couldn’t comfort your younger sister who was crying hysterically, making you feel helpless. As a result, now whenever you see a young child crying their eyes out in the grocery store, you may feel more stress than other people may in that situation. This is a trigger you can identify. 

Memories can also be unconscious, meaning you don’t know what your response is attached to. For example, you know that whenever you hear a man raising his voice to a woman, you freak out, but you don’t know why. It's likely you have an experience you don't consciously remember that can be triggered.


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How does someone else's trigger become your own?

We are social creatures. We like being together, getting close to each other, sharing with each other. And not all that we share is conscious, but emotional contagion is at work in all sorts of social settings, even in advertising. 

When someone reacts strongly to something, it’s not unusual for you to react as well. Someone shouts, and you look to see who’s in danger. This is your personal alarm system at work.

It’s the same with trauma. You can feel someone reacting, especially if you are close to them, even if you’re not consciously aware you’re doing it. This sets off your own high alert system, and you are triggered. 


This is because your brain scans your environment searching for your familiar patterns of threat so that you can protect yourself by detecting if you’re about to be in danger.

And if someone close to you is suddenly highly stressed, your brain tries to make sense of this and reacts. Any potential threat is calculated very quickly. 

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Your brain says: Caution, danger ahead! 

In your brain’s desire to keep you safe, it may pick up on erupting fear in someone else. In a chain reaction, this reminds your brain of something that happened to you, and how you felt.


In these moments your brain says something like: Hmmm. This is familiar. There’s danger around, and sends an immediate alert.  

And you respond even if you don’t know why. You jump, or sweat, your heart begins to thump, your chest tightens, your vision may narrow, you may want to run, or strike out. Or you could feel this as a momentary internal pause, a watch out, and stop breathing.

RELATED: 8 Signs You're A Psychic Empath & Can Sense Others' Pain

Is important to get a handle on being triggered by others because feeling safe with others is one of the most important contributors to your mental health, and being triggered by others interferes with your well-being. 


How to stop letting someone else being triggered become your trauma

1. Feel the energy

When you are entering a situation where there’s a possibility that you may even be remotely anxious, feel the energy. This ability can help you prepare and keep you from reacting as you’re making a plan.

Don’t feel you have this gift to sense the energy in a room, in a person? Sure you do. We all do. I bet you can tell if a store is closed as you approach it by just how it feels, even before you can see if the lights are off.

Do this as you arrive in a new space. Sense the room.

2. Sense the vibes coming from the person you are with

This will help you feel who you want to be near and who you don’t. Scan the situation and take control. Does something about this person feel off? 


Take a pause and ask yourself, "Why am I letting this person get to me?"

Consider creating some space between you and this person, so you can do some self-care. 

Are you feeling something is not right in this situation? Are you seemingly responding out of nowhere to something someone has said, or done? 

Ask yourself why. Consider leaving the situation, even if it is just for a moment, so you can regroup.


3. Do a body check 

Tune into yourself. Being in touch with yourself as you go through your day, and your evening is important on so many levels, including managing the potential for being triggered. 

Assess how you're feeling. Are you excited? A little anxious? Wish you hadn’t come? Are you rushing? Feeling pressured? Expansive? On top of the world? Or having racing thoughts?


Sense what your body is saying to you. Should you Run? Relax? Fight?

4. Ground yourself and focus on self-care

Bring yourself into the present. Simple techniques, which are practiced in advance, can become part of your personal tool kit.

Regulate your breathing by slowly breathing in for four slow beats and out for four slow beats, slowing down your breathing.


Notice six colors in the space you are in, bringing yourself out of your racing thoughts and into the present.

Use mindfulness. Wash your hands in warm water and enjoy the bubbles.

RELATED: Stop Dismissing My PTSD Just Because You Can't See It

Use being triggered as a way of learning more about yourself 

Being triggered is something that you may not be consciously aware of but your brain is. You can use this to grow. 

Think of this as an opportunity to deepen your understanding of who you are, and what experiences you’ve had in the past. Use this to consciously decide how you want to handle them, now. 

This is a way of flipping the script on being triggered and coming out ahead. The reward in thinking this way is that the more you do this, the less triggered you will be as you’ll have a greater understanding of your past, and of the choices you’re making in the present. 


Want to go deeper? Arrange to receive professional help from a trained mental health professional to help you understand the origin of your triggers and the best ways for you to manage them.

RELATED: How To Recognize And Overcome Your Grief Triggers In 5 Steps

Patricia O’Gorman, PhD, Psychologist, Life Coach, is a best-selling author of nine books on trauma, resilience, women and self-parenting.