PTSD Related Conditions What Does It Mean to Be 'Triggered' Types of Triggering Events and Coping Strategies By Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." Learn about our editorial process Updated on March 10, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Carly Snyder, MD Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Related Conditions Types Causes Trigger Warnings Coping Frequently Asked Questions 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 experienceA person connected to the experienceArguing with a friend, spouse, or partnerA specific time of dayCertain sounds that remind them of the experienceChanges to relationships or ending a relationshipSignificant dates such as holidays or anniversariesGoing to a specific location that reminds them of the experienceSmells associated with the experience, such as smoke What Is Abreaction? 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: Calling on your social support Deep breathing Exercising Expressive writing Keeping a journal Mindfulness meditation 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. Therapy for Anxiety Disorders 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 eatingDon't confuse trigger warnings with hashtags. 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. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Trauma reminders: triggers. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. van Marle H. PTSD as a memory disorder. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2015;6. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v6.27633 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 Bellet BW, Jones PJ, McNally RJ. Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2018;61:134-141. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2018.07.002 Additional Reading Boysen GA. Evidence-based answers to questions about trigger warnings for clinically-based distress: A review for teachers. Scholarsh Teach Learn Psychol. 2017;3(2):163-177. doi:10.1037/stl0000084 By Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for PTSD Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.