What Does It Mean to Be 'Triggered'

Types of Triggering Events and Coping Strategies

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight 

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The term "triggered" refers to the experience of having an emotional reaction to a disturbing topic (such as violence or the mention of suicide) in the media or a 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 can make them feel like they're experiencing the trauma all over again.

Some people cope with stressful events more easily than others; consider the impact such events might have on people with mental illnesses.

Mental Health Conditions Affected by Triggers

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

Types of Triggers

Triggers vary widely from person to person and can be internal or external. Following are examples of events that might be considered triggers.

Internal Triggers

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

For example, if you're exercising and your heart starts pounding, the sensation might remind you of a time you were running from an abusive partner. 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 Triggers

External triggers come from the person's environment. They can be a person, place, or a specific situation. What may be a normal, everyday situation or minor inconvenience for some may be triggering to someone living with mental illness.

For example, a person living with trauma may be triggered by:

  • A movie, television show, or news article that reminds them 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 them of the experience
  • 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

Mental health professionals don't yet know precisely how triggers form. Some researchers believe that the brain stores memories from a traumatic event differently from memories of a non-traumatic event.

When triggered, the brain might interpret past traumatic events as current. This causes the body to experience symptoms as it did in response to the original trauma (such as the fight-or-flight response).

A trigger 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 linked in some way to a deeply ingrained habit. For example, a person recovering from alcohol use disorder might associate a particular activity with drinking.

Some refer to this as "traumatic coupling," in which a trigger is connected to a traumatic experience, causing you to relive it and associated symptoms.

Are Trigger Warnings Helpful?

Whether trigger warnings are helpful or harmful is a subject of debate. This question is particularly relevant in college classrooms. Some use trigger warnings to give students time to physically or mentally prepare for potentially distressing subject matter, such as physical or sexual violence. Trigger warnings are used in other settings, too, such as in the media.

Advantages

Proponents of trigger warnings say they give a person a chance to prepare for the potential trigger or even avoid it. Given that a trigger tends to be more distressing if it comes as surprise, a warning can help someone with PTSD or other mental health condition feel safe.

Disadvantages

Others say trigger warnings can reinforce avoidance behaviors, which might only exacerbate PTSD in the long term. Instead, they argue that the emotions that arise from triggers should be appropriately dealt with in therapy, particularly if the feelings and resulting behaviors interfere with daily life.

These warnings also might cause confusion about the true meaning of being triggered, potentially contributing to a negative and harmful perception that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other conditions are fragile and overly sensitive.

How to Cope With Triggers

Sometimes, trying to avoid a triggering situation is reasonable. However, if avoidance 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. Learn to recognize physical signs of reacting to a trigger, such as changes in your breathing, so that you can employ strategies to calm yourself and shift your emotional state.

Your ultimate goal should be to detach yourself from the trigger, recenter, and focus on your coping strategy.

A Word From Verywell

If you regularly feel triggered and unable to cope with situations or feelings that arise in your mind or body, make an appointment with a healthcare provider or mental health professional to discuss your symptoms.

If you have not been formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a healthcare provider can assess your symptoms and determine the best treatment options for your particular situation.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I write a trigger warning?

    First, type "TW" or CW" set off by slashes, a colon, brackets, parentheses, or other punctuation. Follow this with keywords that clearly indicate the potentially triggering subject (e.g., "nudity," "self-harm," "disordered eating"). For example:

    [TW: sexual violence]

    Be careful not to use verbiage that is in itself potentially disturbing.


  • Which colleges have trigger warnings?

    In a 2016 NPR survey of 800 college and university educators, about half said they've used trigger warnings. Most made the decision themselves, not in response to any formal policy or student requests. Likewise, in a National Coalition Against Censorship survey of more than 800 professors, only 1% said their institutions had formal trigger warning policies in place. Only 15% said their students had requested them.


  • How do I add a trigger warning to my social media posts?

    Begin with "trigger warning" or "TW" so your followers understand your meaning clearly. Set it off with slashes or other punctuation, followed by the potentially disturbing issue (for example, sexual violence). It might look something like this:

    TW: disordered eating

    Don't confuse trigger warnings with hashtags.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. van Marle H. PTSD as a memory disorder. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2015;6. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v6.27633

  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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