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How to Identify Triggers

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Updated April 29, 2011

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Most people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) struggle to identify triggers that exacerbate their symptoms. Sometimes people with BPD feel that their reactions come "out of the blue," when in fact there are particular situations and events that consistently trigger symptoms. Use this exercise to identify your triggers.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: 20 minutes

Here's How:

  1. Take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Find a quiet, private place to record your thoughts during this exercise. Be aware that this exercise may cause you some distress (because you'll be thinking about situations that trigger your symptoms), so plan to do something soothing afterward.
  2. On your piece of paper, make three columns. On the top of the first column, write "Trigger." On the top of the second column, write "Emotion." On the top of the third column, write "Response to Emotion."
  3. Call to mind the last time you had an intense negative emotional response. This could be intense anger, loneliness, fear, sadness, shame, or emptiness. Under the "Trigger" column, write whatever event was happening just before you had the emotional response. Remember, a trigger can be an internal or an external event -- it may have been something that happened in the environment around you (i.e., a conflict with a friend), or it may have been something that happened in your mind (i.e., a memory, thought, or image.)
  4. In the "Emotion" column, write the emotional responses you had to the trigger (this could be more than one emotion). If you struggle to identify emotions, you can leave this column blank, but try your best to identify at least one emotion you had in reaction to the trigger.
  5. In the "Response to Emotion" column, write the response you had to the emotions you wrote in the second column. For example, perhaps you felt intense shame in response to the trigger, and as a result you engaged in self-harm. Or, maybe you felt anger, but used coping skills to manage your anger effectively. Whatever your response was to the emotion, record that.
  6. See if you can identify two or three recent (i.e., within the last month) times that you have experienced intense emotional responses. For each of these episodes, repeat steps three, four, and five.
  7. Now, take a look back at the list you have created. In particular, look at the column labeled "triggers." Do you notice any pattern developing? That is, are there particular types of triggers that come up repeatedly for you? See if you can identify one or two categories of triggers that consistently bring up strong emotions. For example, many people with BPD report that experiences of perceived rejection are a strong trigger.
  8. Keep this piece of paper, and after you experience episodes of intense emotion, add to your list by reflecting on the event that triggered the emotion, the emotional response you had, and what you did in response to that emotion or emotions. See if you can identify other patterns of triggers.
  9. As you add to your list, you will begin to be able to predict situations that trigger you. Having this knowledge will help you to create a plan for coping with triggers.

What You Need

  • paper
  • a pen or pencil
  • a quiet, private place
  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Borderline Personality
  4. Understanding BPD
  5. How To Identify Triggers - Identify Triggers for Better Symptom Management

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