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What is a Trigger?

In recent history, you may have seen or heard the phrase “trigger warning” in various media. You may have even heard someone say they were or are feeling “triggered”. In everyday life, feeling distress or emotional pain can be normal. At the core of being human, we all feel joy, sadness, excitement, anger, and even fear.For many of us, the emotions that we feel can be rational and relatable to the presenting causes. There are also feelings that seem like they come from nowhere. Or, they feel more intense than they should; usually brought on by an incident or object. The incident mentioned, that brings out the emotional response, are typically called triggers.

In this article, we will focus on understanding what it means to feel triggered and how triggers can form. We will also take some time to focus on types of triggers and some quick tips for coping.

What is a Trigger?

A trigger is an action, object, or situation that can cue an intense emotional response. When talking about triggers from a mental health lens, a trigger can also be a cue for an increase in symptoms of issues like depression or anxiety. More commonly, the word itself is often associated with trauma and the description of one’s experiences with it.

Triggers can impact one’s ability to remain mindful and present, while also influencing specific thoughts and behaviors. Similar to grieving, triggers can present themselves in different forms. Certain locations or anniversaries can be a triggering moment for someone to experience difficult emotions.

What Does It Mean?

As a reminder of past trauma, being triggered would typically mean that a person feels overwhelming emotions such as, but not limited to, sadness, panic or anger. Depending on the intensity, flashbacks about the trauma can also be present; where a vivid and often negative memory of the trauma resurfaces and pulls one back to that moment.

Because mental health triggers are based on the individual experiences of someone’s life, the litany of things that can trigger someone can be endless. For some instances, a trigger can be predictable like a veteran being triggered by specific imagery. Likewise, triggers can also be unpredictable; such as a movie scene detailing a specific event or lyrics to a song.

It is important to recognize that the feelings that come up from being triggered can be overwhelming and difficult to address at times, and detrimental to one’s mental health. It is also important to not assume the level or intensity of the triggering event or memories that present themselves; nor should we assume that the person experiencing the trigger is inaccurately sensitive. Because while it may seem insignificant or irrational to one person, the trigger or event can be personally significant.

While trauma can be a starting point for triggers to form, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop triggers. Trauma impacts people in different ways, and no one person will experience it the same. Being stimulated or cued by certain triggers can also be factored in by things such as other mental health concerns, cultural or religious beliefs, and family history of mental health.

How Triggers Are Formed

While the exact understanding behind brain function and triggers is not fully understood, a 2004 study  suggests that our sensory information (sight, sounds, smells) can play a large role in memory formation. Such that one theory has also suggested that the intensity of our feelings and senses in trauma-related triggers are related.

During traumatic or highly significant events, our brains identify and ingrain sensory stimuli into our memory. When discussing triggers then, our brains can also associate the same or even similar stimuli to the past trauma.

When a person is in a high-threat or intense experience, the fight or flight response engages. This response makes our bodies go into high alert and prioritize survival. In this case, short term memory can be neglected in brain functioning and misfire the trauma into long term memory storage. This would make the trauma experience be associated still as a present event. When the trauma is reminded then  through a trigger, the mind and body can react as if the event is happening again.

Types of Triggers

The triggers we experience can vary from person to person, because the traumas and experiences faced are individualized. While the variety can be vast, triggers can be seen in ways such as external or internal. The following list can help to identify different types of triggers.

External Triggers

External triggers can come from the environment such as a news article, an argument with a friend or partner, or specific dates and anniversaries. While some external stimuli such as time of day or talking to a friend might appear as mundane to one person, such an example can cue the intense feelings and reactions from a past trauma.

An example of an external trigger can be a trauma response brought on by watching a scene in a movie detailing a tragic passing. Or, a thematic argument with a close friend reminding someone of a past relationship that also had perpetual conflicts.

Internal Triggers

An internal trigger typically comes from within the person experiencing the stimulus. This type of trigger can be a specific emotion, a memory, or a physical sensation. Some common internal triggers might include feelings such as anger, vulnerability, abandonment. Internal triggers can also be memories of an event or bodily sensations.

An example of an internal trigger can be an increased heart rate that reminds someone of a negative experience such as an abusive partner, or feelings of abandonment brought on by decreased contact by close ones.

Tips to Cope and Manage

There is no one way to cope with a trigger stimulus. Like trauma and other life experiences, everyone’s perspective and methods are validly different. It is important then that we identify strategies that work best for ourselves. Different strategies may also work for different cues. Here are some suggestions for coping strategies (but not a replacement for proper mental health support if needed):

1. Identify

When thinking about past experiences and reactions, consider the factors that were involved such as the people and places. Being able to take note of specific patterns or situations can help to manage the feelings associated with the triggers experienced.

2. Practice Self-Care

Prioritizing yourself can build resilience against the sensations of both internal and external triggers. Personalized practices such as meditation and exercise can be useful strategies to help you remain mindful of bodily and mental sensations in the moment. Self-care can also be defined as participating in a hobby or interest that allows you to remain present.

3. Journal

Journaling is a great stress-management tool that can help with managing anxiety and increasing well-being. There is no one way to journal nor is there a recommended duration or schedule of journaling. This method can help to alleviate stress and process feelings through examining the words written down rather than just thinking about them.

4. Emotion-Based Coping

It might be difficult to avoid a trigger sometimes or even eliminate it. One method of coping can be to recognize the emotions being felt at the moment and learning how to regulate it during the triggering event. Meditation, for example, or a deep breathing exercise can be helpful in reducing and managing stress and anxiety. Recognizing the emotion that we feel in triggering moments can also help us prepare for future instances of experiencing triggering stimuli.

5. Seek Support

While this section has been focused on ways to personally cope and manage the experience of triggers, it is also important to recognize that treating the mental health concerns that underlie the triggers can be equally helpful. Processing the emotions linked to one’s past, learning how to avoid certain behaviors, and even learning strategies in a safe space with a professional can help to mitigate the intensity of triggers being experienced and improve well-being.

Closing Thoughts

The word trigger has certainly had changes over time. From a mental health context, a trigger is a cue or a stimulus that reawakens a specific memory or trauma in one’s past. Those who have experienced trauma can be more vulnerable to triggers. While anything can be a trigger, it is again important to recognize that no trigger is too trivial to acknowledge. Nor should we dismiss the fact that someone may be experiencing a triggering event. While it might be difficult at times to recognize or control the triggers being experienced, such experiences can also let us learn more about ourselves. In that we can apply what we’ve learned about an experience and learn how to manage, self-soothe, and limit the risk of triggers.

Lastly, it is also important to recognize the need for mental health support when discussing the impact of triggers. Because the intense memories and responses that we experience can have a relationship to one’s past and the emotions that come with them. 

Additional Resources: 

Book: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Blog: “How to Repair Your Relationship with You” by Kelsey Collett, LSW