What Does It Mean to Be "Triggered?"

Types of triggering events and coping strategies

What does it mean to be "triggered?" In recent years, this term has been casually used to refer to the experience of having an emotional reaction, usually to some type of disturbing content in the form of media, be that violence, mention of suicide, or another situation.

However, from a mental health perspective, being "triggered" more narrowly refers to the experience of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) re-experiencing symptoms of a traumatic event (such as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation) after being exposed to a trigger that is a catalyst or reminder.

Triggers can be internal or external, including smells, sights, sounds, and emotions that remind the person of the past trauma in some way. When a person with post-traumatic stress disorder experiences being triggered in this way, it can lead to overwhelming emotions, including sadness, anxiety, panic, and flashbacks (vivid memories that appear without warning and can cause you to lose track of where you are or to relive a trauma). 

Triggers can also be relevant for those with other mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Those who are triggered may relapse into harmful habits.

Next, let's examine the types of situations that might trigger symptoms and then consider how you can cope if these are causing problems for you.

Types of Triggers

As mentioned, triggers can be both internal and external events. Below are two examples of the different kinds of events that might be considered triggers in terms of mental health problems.

Internal

The most common internal triggering events are the following list of situations:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • A racing heart
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Frustration
  • Feeling out of control
  • Pain
  • Tension

External

Below is a list of potential external events that may cause a person to feel triggered:

  • Going to a specific location that reminds them of a traumatic event
  • An anniversary date
  • A violent movie
  • A particular smell that is connected to a past trauma (e.g., incense)
  • Seeing an overly thin celebrity (in the case of anorexia)
  • Loud noises (e.g., a motorbike in the case of a war veteran)
  • A particular interaction (e.g., an argument)
  • Seeing someone else use drugs (for substance abuse)
  • New stories about bad events
  • The ending of a relationship
  • Being alone too much
  • Feeling judged
  • Experiencing money problems
  • Experiencing physical illness
  • Experiencing sexual harassment
  • A particular time of day (e.g., sunset)
  • Being in a crowded place

How Triggers Are Formed

While we don't know exactly how triggers are formed, it's believed that traumatic memories are not stored properly. Past events may be interpreted as current threats, which causes the body to experience symptoms similar to the original trauma (such as the fight-or-flight response).

We do know that triggers can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they have become upset. Often, triggers have a strong sensory connection (a sight, sound, taste, or smell), or are connected in some way to a deeply ingrained habit (e.g., a recovering alcoholic who associates a particular activity with drinking). This is known as "traumatic coupling," where a trigger is connected to a traumatic experience, which causes you to relive symptoms.

Are Trigger Warnings Helpful?

There has been some debate as to whether trigger warnings are helpful or harmful, particularly in college classrooms. Trigger warnings are used to notify students or other consumers of material that there are potential triggers in future discussion.

Those who argue in favor of trigger warnings state that they give individuals a chance to prepare themselves for the trigger. Given that triggers tend to be more distressing if they come as a surprise, this could be viewed as helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues to feel safe.

At the same time, others argue that avoiding triggers only serves to maintain the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the long-term and that the emotions that arise from triggers need to be properly dealt with in therapy, particularly if they interfere with daily life.

How to Cope with Triggers

How can you cope with triggers if you live with mental illness? First, ensure that you've received appropriate treatment to process the emotions that you are experiencing. Once that is underway, you can use some of the following self-help strategies to cope with situations that are triggers for you:

  • Practice relaxation techniques
  • Avoid unhealthy behaviors
  • Become aware of your triggers
  • Anticipate and plan a coping strategy for triggers
  • Call someone if you're feeling triggered
  • Keep a journal
  • Engage in regular exercise
  • Read self-help books to add new coping strategies
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Practice self-soothing
  • Practice deep breathing

Since avoidance only reinforces post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, systematic exposure to your triggers offers the most benefit. Instead of feeling helpless and depressed, facing your triggers could help you view yourself as resilient—when done in a gradual way.

Empower yourself by preparing to cope with triggers, rather than thinking of yourself as a victim. Become aware of signs in your body that you're reacting to a trigger, such as changes in your breathing, so that you can learn how to calm yourself down and shift your emotional state. Your ultimate goal should be to detach yourself from the trigger, re-center, and focus on your coping strategy.

A Word From Verywell

If you are feeling triggered on a regular basis and unable to cope with various situations or feelings that arise in your mind or body, it is important to make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional to discuss your symptoms.

If you have not been diagnosed with mental illness, your doctor will assess your symptoms to determine whether you meet the criteria for a diagnosis and then outline the best treatment options for your particular situation.

How to Develop Healthy Coping Skills for PTSD
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