What Does It Mean to Be Triggered? (2023)

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

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 ingrainedhabit. For example, a person recoveringfrom 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.

(Video) What Does It Mean To Be Triggered? 2022

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.

The Best Types of Therapy to Treat Anxiety

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

  1. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Trauma reminders: triggers. PTSD: National Center for PTSD.

  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

  4. 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

(Video) Here's what to do when you're triggered

What Does It Mean to Be Triggered? (1)

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."

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(Video) 8 Signs You May Be Emotionally Triggered

FAQs

What does it mean when a person is triggered? ›

In mental health terms, a trigger refers to something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress. A trigger affects your ability to remain present in the moment. It may bring up specific thought patterns or influence your behavior.

What does being triggered feel like? ›

Responses to Triggers

You may feel strong emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, numbness, or feeling out of control. Being triggered may primarily show up in how you behave; you might isolate yourself from others, become argumentative, shut down emotionally, or become physically aggressive.

How do you know if you are being triggered? ›

Signs You've Been Triggered: Examples of Trauma Symptoms
  1. Bothered by small things.
  2. Sensory sensitivity – easily overstimulated, bothered by noises or body sensations that don't always bother you (e.g. touch from others, tags on clothing)
  3. Anger feels sudden and uncontrollable.
Oct 28, 2020

What does it mean to be triggered emotionally? ›

Emotional triggers, also called mental health triggers or psychological triggers, are things (e.g. memories, objects, people) that spark intense negative emotions. This change in emotions can be abrupt, and in most cases it will feel more severe than what the trigger would logically call for.

What do you do if someone triggers you? ›

Talk to the person who triggered you so you can both avoid the situation from repeating. Be calm and composed. You have to communicate to yourself by identifying what you feel. An example would be: slamming the door at your partner for not noticing the effort you put into your relationship.

What do you say when you trigger someone? ›

How To Help A Friend Who's Been Triggered
  1. Understand what triggers are in the first place. ...
  2. Don't tell them they're exaggerating or doing it for attention. ...
  3. Get them out of the situation as quickly as possible. ...
  4. Reassure them that they are safe. ...
  5. Don't treat them like they're crazy. ...
  6. Get them to breathe.
Jun 4, 2015

What are 3 types of behavior triggers? ›

He describes three types of triggers: spark, facilitator, and signal, in which the motivation and ability of the individual determine the type of trigger needed to produce behavior change.

What can trigger a person? ›

Triggers vary widely from person to person and can be internal or external.
...
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.
Mar 10, 2022

What are examples of emotional triggers? ›

Common situations that trigger intense emotions include:
  • rejection.
  • betrayal.
  • unjust treatment.
  • challenged beliefs.
  • helplessness or loss of control.
  • being excluded or ignored.
  • disapproval or criticism.
  • feeling unwanted or unneeded.

How long does being triggered last? ›

Acute trauma

Symptoms may last from 3 days to 1 month.

What are triggers in relationships? ›

Triggers are situations that represent painful reminders of your past - often linked to childhood - that impact how you react today. Triggers can be traced back to childhood experiences. For instance, if you've experienced neglect or abandonment, you might anticipate the same thing happening in your relationship.

How do you help someone who is being triggered? ›

If somebody has been triggered, here are a few things you can do to help them recover:
  1. Let them know that they can contact you. This is a simple gesture and a very important one. ...
  2. Be physically close to them. ...
  3. Distract and/or comfort them. ...
  4. Don't be judgmental. ...
  5. Don't beat yourself up if you make a mistake.
Aug 19, 2018

Do triggers ever go away? ›

With practice, the reaction to your emotional triggers could subside, but they may never go away. The best you can do is to quickly identify when an emotion is triggered and then choose what to say or do next.

What happens when trauma is triggered? ›

Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect. Most responses are normal in that they affect most survivors and are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited.

How do you calm down after being triggered? ›

Coping With Triggers
  1. Deep breathing.
  2. Expressive writing.
  3. Grounding.
  4. Mindfulness.
  5. Relaxation.
  6. Self-soothing.
  7. Social support.
Jun 3, 2020

How do you deal with a triggered partner? ›

How to Cope With Being Triggered By Your Partner
  1. Practice Mindfulness. Remove your attention from your partner and focus on your breath. ...
  2. Pause and Take a Break. Remove yourself from the situation. ...
  3. Find the Humor in the Situation. ...
  4. Take a Look at Your Coping Skills. ...
  5. Understand Your Feelings. ...
  6. Apologize for Your Actions.
Aug 19, 2021

How do you deal with someone who is easily triggered? ›

Just listen. – Don't defend, blame or criticize them! In the presence of anyone who is triggered, if you come at them with any kind of attack they are going to get defensive and walls will go up. Tread lightly not to take care of them but to RESPECT their process and take care of YOURSELF.

What are triggers mental health? ›

In the context of mental illness, "trigger" is often used to mean something that brings on or worsens symptoms. This often happens to people with a history of trauma or who are recovering from mental illness, self-harm, addiction, and/or eating disorders.

What triggers behaviour change? ›

These three behavior change elements are the following: Motivation — People have to be sufficiently motivated to change their behavior. Ability — They must have the ability to do the behavior. Trigger — They have to be triggered, or prompted, to do the behavior.

What are the most common triggers? ›

Some examples of common triggers are:
  • financial problems, getting a big bill.
  • physical illness.
  • sexual harassment.
  • being yelled at.
  • aggressive-sounding noises or exposure to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • being around someone who has treated you badly.
  • certain smells, tastes, or noises.

What are triggers in relationships? ›

Triggers are situations that represent painful reminders of your past - often linked to childhood - that impact how you react today. Triggers can be traced back to childhood experiences. For instance, if you've experienced neglect or abandonment, you might anticipate the same thing happening in your relationship.

What does trigger mean in mental health? ›

A trigger is a stimulus that elicits a reaction. In the context of mental illness, "trigger" is often used to mean something that brings on or worsens symptoms. This often happens to people with a history of trauma or who are recovering from mental illness, self-harm, addiction, and/or eating disorders.

Why do we get triggered? ›

Defining Triggers

When we're triggered, we're re-experiencing a past injury in present time – similar to a post-traumatic stress reaction. A sign of being triggered is when our reaction is disproportionate to the present event or not reasonably related to the actual present facts.

What are some examples of triggers? ›

Triggers vary widely from person to person and can be internal or external.
...
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.
Mar 10, 2022

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