The SAP Method for Dealing with Emotional Triggers

Dealing with Emotional TriggersEvery time Bryan and Jill go to her parents’ house, they have a huge argument. One that goes nuclear. And Bryan thinks he knows why.

“Jill gets weird around her family,” he says. “It’s like she’s a different person. She picks on every little thing I say. Normally I’m a pretty tolerant guy, but a weekend with her parents is enough to make me wonder why I’m with her.”

Samantha has a different problem. Every time she brings up the possibility of her boyfriend changing jobs, he lashes out at her.

She says, “I know he hates where he’s working. I’d totally support him if he wanted to look for something else. But I can’t even bring up the topic around him. It’s like he turns on me.”

What’s going on?

Hidden deep within every single one of us are emotional tripwires, also known as triggers.

If someone stumbles across that tripwire, they’d better duck, because an emotional explosion is on its way.

Maybe you’ve noticed it in past relationships. You say something innocent, and he goes ballistic. His reaction is totally out of proportion. And to be frank, it’s kind of scary. You wouldn’t have pegged him for being so irrational.

But we all have triggers. They’re left over from the past.

For Jill, the company of her family was a trigger. She grew up in a household where fighting was the norm. Even though, as an adult, she learned better ways to handle conflict, being back home activated those old pathways. When Bryan made a light-hearted comment, she perceived it as an attack—just as her siblings used to try to get her to react.

Samantha didn’t know why her boyfriend got triggered when she suggested changing jobs, but she could guess. His father was chronically unemployed, and he grew up listening to his parents argue about money. No wonder he overreacted at the idea of leaving a secure job.

Getting to know your own triggers—and the triggers of the man you love—is an essential investment in your long-term romantic future.

It’s tough to eliminate a trigger entirely, but you can “SAP” the energy from it until it’s barely noticeable. Here’s how.

S – Spot It

The quickest way to defuse an emotional overreaction is to name it. If you realize you’re being triggered, you can step back from the feelings before they escalate. 

Be on the lookout for negative emotions that swell up out of nowhere. Instead of continuing with the discussion (or whatever triggered you), stop and deal with the emotions you’re feeling. Try to put words to them, such as, “I’m feeling so much anger right now, and I have no idea why.”

It’s often easier to see when someone else is being triggered than recognizing it in yourself, so make a pact to help each other spot when emotions are coming from the past rather than the present. Keep your language gentle, e.g., “I wonder if what I said triggered you in some way.”

A – Ask This Question

Because triggers come from the past, ask yourself: “What’s the earliest memory I have of feeling this way?”

In other words, where did this association come from?

You may not come up with an answer right away. Discovering the root of your triggers can take patient excavation, and you might feel resistant to digging through the mud and muck of your past. That’s okay. Hold the question loosely in your mind, and let any answers come on their own schedule.

P – Promise Each Other This

Triggers are hard to unravel. Knowing that something triggers you is great, but it doesn’t stop the reaction from happening.

Dealing with Emotional Triggers

Having a supportive partner makes a huge difference.

Talk to each other about what triggers you. Share any relevant memories with your partner. Sharing childhood experiences not only helps you feel closer but also helps him understand you better.

There’s a certain danger in knowing what upsets one other. If you wanted to, you could step on his triggers deliberately. And some people do. It’s a way to punish their partner by doing something he doesn’t like.

Promise to tread gently around each other’s sore spots. Don’t use that information against one another, especially when you’re angry.

Together, you can help heal those old wounds, by creating a safe space for self-understanding.

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3 thoughts on “The SAP Method for Dealing with Emotional Triggers

  1. Kate said:

    Hi James, I just experienced a trigger within me this week. Everything happened starting from a Facebook-like my love interest placed upon a (trashy) sexually allusive profile picture of a girl he apparently knows in person. He said he liked it just because it was funny (it’s so simple for you guys…). She had already attempted to provoke me in another post of his, maybe she spotted some shared interest in us and she doesn’t like it. I have no idea of who she is, as my love interest and I are getting to know each other during these last months, so while we are getting closer and closer, I am trying to enjoy this journey of ours in building trust and connection and I don’t feel like getting too much involved in wanting to know everything about him immediately. I think it’s ok if things are coming up at the most appropriate moment as they are doing from his side and he is a really great guy with me, just a bit reserved when something is triggering his emotions both positively and negatively; but I have to say that he is also a handsome guy with lots of female fans, I do expect some “terrorism” from them, however I would prefer to handle it with him once things are safer between us. Since we haven’t started with some physical confidence yet – I feel we both prefer to be more confident with our relationship, since our connection feels profound – of course his like on this picture stroke me as hell and opened a lot of question marks. All at once, it triggered my not knowing about where we are on a physical/sexual point of view. I waited about a week before coming up with this matter, since I wanted to take my time and understand better what was going on inside of me and find the real reason why this Facebook-like of his stroke me so bad. Then I wrote him a message about that, explaining about “my fears of not being in some dreams of his” and the reasons why all this triggered me, since things between us are still so delicate as I feel them. I underlined how I got that he did it so lightly and he did not mean bad to me. He hasn’t really replied to that, however we exchanged some messages afterwards, which between the lines are telling me that, even if this incident is now over, he is now stuck. In facts, on one hand he could feel the need to make me feel sure that I am in his dreams (he is really great in comforting me each time he sees I need it, but this time it’s tricky…), on the other hand we are still not in the position of feeling physical confident. Is there anything I shall do to help him unravel this or is it better to leave some space between us waiting for his thoughts to settle down? It seems this blocks him from asking me out as we planned for the next days… I don’t want to rush things, I’d like to go back to our connection pace… Is there anything I should do differently in case some other triggers come up in the future?

    • Lorna (LaLa) said:

      Oh dear, Kate, I can see how this is really difficult for you. But you are already half-way there to a solution by reading this article and understanding actually where your feelings are coming from. As I see it, it is really YOUR problem of feeling insecure and vulnerable and jealous of his interest in someone else. I am not meaning to be critical of you. But I know myself how when in a romantic relationship the “green eyed monster” (jealousy) can suddenly raise it’s ugly head completely out of the blue and make you over-react, when normally it would not bother you, if it was anyone else. He has said he just did it for fun. You will need to learn to believe him and trust him, if your relationship is going to survive these storms. You must try to put this behind you and not let it spoil things between you. Yes, he probably IS beginning to wonder whether he wants a jealous woman in his life. Men do not want women who are “hard work”. He WILL have a past, and a life outside of you – and you will have to come to terms with that, but it is the present that is important. Try not to spoil the present by making waves when you feel the little green-eyed monster is prowling around trying to get your attention and make things difficult for you. Try to rise above these feelings of insecurity and jealousy – they absolutely will spoil things between you. I’m sure we all feel a twinge of jealously when we feel our love-interest is threatened by an interloper – that is a natural animal instinct, we want to keep our love-interest to ourselves – but we have to try to control that. Unless, of course, we have absolute evidence that there IS something going on that should not be. Social media has a lot to answer for these days. Personally, I do not go in for it – there are too many risks involved. I found photos of my love-interest on there once, apparently cozied up to another woman at a concert he had organized and he had not invited me to. It turned out to be innocent, but it caused a huge problem in our relationship. He could not understand where I was coming from. Men can be very “thick”. Is there anything you can do? I would say back-off, let it go, leave this hurt and misunderstanding behind – do not mention it again – appear friendly, loving and above all, confident, and wait and see what happens. Men do not want a drama-queen in their lives. Let it go. It is not worth spoiling a good thing over. And at the same time, look deep inside yourself to see what it is that makes you feel so jealous. If you can deal with that, I know you will begin to feel better. James did a good article on jealously a while ago, if you can look it up. I wish you all the best. Lorna

    • Lana said:


      I have a question to ask you . How long since you know this man from Facebook(?) is this how you two met? Have you been on a date with him yet, and if yes, how long time ago? All these questions are for you to answer for yourself and come to realization of how “serious” this guy can be about you and your potential relationship with him. Don’t fool yourself with illusions of what might be next step in you getting him know. Be cureous, adventurous, but careful too. If you can get some information about this guy from other people you know (not from Facebook friends only!) that would be a great help. Be friendly and have some courage to ask him questions, that can help you to understand his behavior better. There is plenty of learning materials on internet, including James’s web page, for you to become a wiser in relationship with a man. Good luck with this guy, but there are some other people available too! May be not that attractive physically, like this one you are talking about, but more intelligent and caring and loving hearts.
      Have fun and be smart.
      Love you all,

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