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What Does It Mean to Be ‘Triggered?’

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

Being “triggered” involves an intense physical or emotional response to an external factor. Triggers remind people of traumatic events or negative experiences. The reaction of being “triggered” could be in the form of painful memories, emotional distress, a panic attack, or flashbacks.

Being “triggered” isn’t the same thing as feeling uncomfortable, and it goes beyond something rubbing you the wrong way. For individuals with a history of trauma, anything that reminds them of a traumatic experience can create an intense emotional reaction.

Everyone copes with stressful events differently, and people respond differently to specific triggers than others. Whether you’re dealing with past trauma, living with an anxiety disorder, or experiencing acute emotional reactions, here’s everything you need to know about triggers.

What are triggers?

What are triggers?

According to the American Psychological Association, a trigger is a stimulus that elicits a reaction. For example, a specific location can trigger the memory of a negative experience and negative emotions surrounding the incident.

There are different types of triggers, and being “triggered” is a unique experience for everyone. Some common triggers include mental health triggers, emotional triggers, and psychological triggers.

A trigger disrupts your ability to remain in the present moment. A triggering situation can bring up specific thoughts, influence your behavior, or bring up unpleasant feelings. It’s important to remember that triggers are unique for everyone, and they can be internal or external. Specific phrases, smells, sounds, people, or places can all be triggers for people who have experienced traumatic events, such as:

For some people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), reading or watching the news about a similar traumatic event can also cause intense psychological and physical symptoms. Substance use disorders also involve relapse triggers and learning how to recognize these triggers can help individuals learn how to cope.

How are triggers formed?

Mental health professionals don’t understand precisely how triggers form, but research suggests that the brain may store memories from a traumatic event differently from everyday events. When triggered, the brain might interpret past traumatic events as current. In turn, the body experiences emotional and physical symptoms similar to the original trauma, such as the fight-or-flight response.

Sometimes, triggers cause acute emotions, such as sadness or anger, before a person recognizes their emotional reaction. In many cases, triggers have a strong sensory connection (sights, sounds, tastes, or smells) or are linked to deeply ingrained habits. For example, a person with PTSD may have strong associations between specific activities and the traumatic experience.

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How can you cope with triggers?

The first step in coping with triggers is to identify them. To recognize triggers, take a step back and assess your emotional state when you begin to experience intense emotions. Try creating a list of people, places, things, and different factors contributing to strong emotional reactions. Once this list is compiled, you can start focusing on how to cope with triggering situations.

If you’re experiencing intense emotions, it might be tempting to avoid specific events, situations, or people altogether. However, avoiding trauma triggers will not treat underlying mental health concerns. If triggers interfere with your everyday life, it may be time to seek professional help.

Therapy can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage your emotional responses and live in the present moment. Some therapists utilize relaxation techniques and mindfulness exercises to help individuals cope with panic attacks, PTSD symptoms, and intense emotions. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you identify the your emotional triggers, combat negative emotions, and cope with the negative emotions that accompany triggering situations. Psychodynamic psychotherapy could help you to understand the roots of your triggers, identify their emoiontal impact, and work though and change how they impact your current life

How can you seek mental health care for triggers?

Anyone who has experienced trauma knows that being “triggered” is no joke. Although there’s no linear path to healing from complex trauma, admitting that you’ve witnessed a traumatic experience is a significant first step toward healing. After that, working with a licensed therapist knowledgeable about PTSD can help you develop long-term strategies to work toward successful recovery.

To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to an experienced mental health professional you feel comfortable with based on your personal preferences and requirements.

Whether you’re healing after trauma or managing anxiety triggers, one of the qualified therapists on the WithTherapy platform will help you recognize your triggers, understand your emotional needs, and live a healthier life.

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