What Does It Mean to Be 'Triggered'

Types of triggering events and coping strategies

How to Cope With Triggers

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight 

What does it mean to be "triggered?" This term has been casually used to refer to the experience of having an emotional reaction to some type of disturbing content (such as violence or the mention of suicide) in the media or in another social setting. However, there is a difference between being triggered and being uncomfortable.

Feeling triggered isn't just about something rubbing you the wrong way. For someone with a history of trauma, being around anything that reminds them of a traumatic experience (also known as a "trigger") can make them feel like they're experiencing the trauma all over again.

Though commonly used to refer to the experiences of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the term "trigger" can also be used in the context of other mental health illnesses. This includes substance use disorders, eating disorders, and anxiety.

In these cases, a trigger is seen as anything that prompts an increase in or return of symptoms. For example, a person recovering from a substance use disorder may be triggered by seeing someone using their drug of choice. The experience may cause returned cravings and even relapse.

Types of Triggers

Triggers vary widely from person to person and can be either internal or external. Below are examples of the different kinds of events that might be considered triggers in terms of mental health problems.

Internal

An internal trigger comes from within the person. It can be a memory, a physical sensation, or an emotion.

For example, say you're exercising and your heart starts pounding. That sensation might remind you of a time you were running from an abusive partner. That would be considered an internal trigger. Other common internal triggers include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, abandoned, or out of control
  • Loneliness
  • Muscle tension
  • Memories tied to a traumatic event
  • Pain
  • Sadness

External

External triggers come from the environment. They can be a person, place, or a specific situation.

Think of the impact that a situation such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may have on those struggling with mental illness. Many may view self-quarantine guidelines and stay-at-home orders as a minor inconvenience.

However, someone recovering from binge eating disorder—a disease that thrives in isolation—may feel triggered under such circumstances. Some other common things that may cause a person to feel triggered:

  • A movie, television show, or news article that reminds you of the experience
  • A person connected to the experience
  • Arguing with a friend, spouse, or partner
  • A specific time of day
  • Certain sounds that remind you of the experience (a military veteran might be triggered by loud noises that sound like gunfire)
  • Changes to relationships or ending a relationship
  • Significant dates (such as holidays or anniversaries)
  • Going to a specific location that reminds them of the experience
  • Smells associated with the experience, such as smoke

How Triggers Are Formed

We don't know precisely how triggers are formed. Some researchers believe that our brains store memories from a traumatic event differently from memories of a non-traumatic event.

Past traumatic events may be interpreted by the brain as current. This causes the body to experience symptoms similar to the original trauma (such as the fight-or-flight response).

We also 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 (for example, a recovering alcoholic who associates a particular activity with drinking).

Some refer to this as "traumatic coupling," where a trigger is connected to a traumatic experience, causing 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. Some classroom settings use trigger warnings to give students time to physically or mentally prepare for a potentially distressing subject matter, such as content involving physical or sexual violence.

  • Advantages: Those who argue in favor of trigger warnings state that they give people 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 PTSD and other mental health issues to feel safe.
  • Disadvantages: At the same time, others argue that trigger warnings can reinforce avoidance behaviors and that avoiding triggers only serves to maintain the symptoms of PTSD in the long-term. Instead, emotions that arise from triggers should be appropriately dealt with in therapy, particularly if they interfere with daily life.

How to Cope With Triggers

Sometimes, it is reasonable to try to avoid triggering situations. However, if avoiding possible triggers hinders your ability to function, you should seek help.

Learning to cope with triggers you can't anticipate or avoid requires emotional processing, which is most often aided by therapy. The following are a few effective, healthy coping strategies for lessening the impact of triggers:

Empower yourself by preparing to cope with triggers. 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 regularly feel triggered and are 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 formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your doctor will assess your symptoms and determine the best treatment options for your particular situation.

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Article Sources
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  3. Sanson M, Strange D, Garry M. Trigger warnings are trivially helpful at reducing negative affect, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance. Clin Psychol Sci. 2019;7(4):778-793. doi:10.1177/2167702619827018

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