After World War I, studies on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) began to use the term "trigger" in reference to trauma responses to chilling combat flashbacks. Since then, the term has expanded to cover a vast array of traumas and individual responses to these traumatic instances. It was in the 2010s that the term "trigger warning" became popularized within the media as a respectful alert to trauma survivors for potentially disturbing content to come.
Being "triggered" can mean very different things for different people, especially since trigger-inducing traumas can range from eating disorders to self-harm to sexual violence, so we spoke to psychologists and trauma experts to better understand what it means to be triggered and how to approach and respond to these overwhelming moments.
What it means to be "triggered."
"Being triggered is having an emotional or physical reaction to an external factor that reminds one of a traumatic event they have experienced," psychologist and trauma expert Karol Darsa, Psy.D., tells mbg. "The reaction that we call 'being triggered' could be in the form of a flashback, a panic attack, emotional distress, etc."
Triggers can stem from very obvious traumas like sexual violence and war experiences, but they can also stem from micro-traumas in which subtle hurts build up over time. Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D., a Seattle-based psychologist and psychoanalyst who has studied the phenomenon in depth, defines micro-trauma as "seemingly insignificant experiences that are emotionally injurious to oneself or another. Because they seem so minor, they can easily be ignored, denied, or otherwise swept under the psychic rug."
Whether the trauma experienced was a life-threatening instance or a series of more subtle instances that built over time, feeling triggered remains a deeply uncomfortable experience. Darsa notes that the feeling is "likely to take you out of your body, making you less present in the moment," in addition to any emotional distress or panic a person might experience in response to the trigger-inducing stimulus.
Where triggers come from.
Usually triggers come from past trauma. External or internal factors bring the experience back up for the person, in a way retraumatizing them.
"Every human being is different in how they react to triggering factors and what specific factors may be triggering to them, as well as how easily they can get triggered," Darsa explains. "Some can get triggered very quickly simply by a noise in the background, while some get triggered by a new traumatic instance that brought up the memory of an old one."
According to psychologist Catherine Athans, Ph.D., triggers can also come from "family line" or "group" traumas.
“The attitudes and strong beliefs of parents affect children in an unconscious manner, so the next generation assumes those same thoughts and beliefs without knowing," says Athans. "This is family line trauma. It sits in the subconscious like a cesspool. Group trauma is similar, except the strong beliefs are assumed by a group instead of genetically."
Triggers may also come from an individual's suppressed emotions, thoughts, and beliefs born from their own life experience.
Different types of triggers.
Some mental health professionals believe that triggers should be divided into categories such as emotional triggers, anxiety triggers, physical triggers, and beyond. And while there is value in this approach, according to Darsa, triggers need not necessarily be categorized based on the nature of the trigger itself but rather the reaction an individual has to a trigger of any kind.
"One who is triggered by a certain noise, for example, might experience extreme anxiety to the noise, while another who is also triggered by a noise might feel it in their body by experiencing pain in a certain part of their body," Darsa explains.
Trauma is stored in the body, and this can manifest in "stuck" or "frozen" emotions triggering physical responses such as chronic pain or tension. In short, each person can respond differently to certain triggers, and their reactions can be emotional reactions, physical reactions, anxiety reactions, etc. But there is not necessarily a solid differentiation between types of triggers, as they are unique experiences for each individual and each body.
Trigger warnings have become a controversial topic, with some people touting their importance while others look down upon them as overused for the "overly sensitive." This is clearly nuanced, but then again, maybe trigger warnings aren't meant to be politicized—only helpful and courteous, especially for those in classroom settings and online groups, being assigned works they wouldn't have otherwise sought out to read.
Darsa says that trigger warnings are helpful in the sense that they give the room for an individual's mind and body to prepare for a triggering event, which might lead them to dissociate, have a panic attack, and go into emotional distress. The warning gives the opportunity for the individual to make the decision on experiencing the trigger, instead of it crawling up on them as an unpleasant surprise, which most likely was the case at the onset of their trauma.
"Knowing that there is an upcoming trigger could be helpful in being prepared and keeping ourselves more grounded, thus having a less negative experience when face to face with the trigger," Darsa tells mbg.
Still, there's always the potential of too much of something good. Darsa reminds us that the trigger response itself could be the body's reaction of protecting itself from a potential threat by making one lose presence in the moment to get away from the threatful situation. "It is important to learn the skills to cope with triggers and keep yourself grounded while dealing with these triggers and prevent them from impacting your functionality in your daily activities," she says.
How to identify & respond to your triggers.
So, how can one take control and respond accordingly to their triggers? According to Darsa, before identifying the trigger itself, it may be easier to begin by noticing the reaction and bodily response you are experiencing. For example, you may have a panic attack, you may start crying, or you may go into a state of shock. Once you notice that you've been having such a reaction, it is important to monitor it.
"Think about what caused the shift in your emotional and physical distress, external factors like noises you heard, things you saw, people around you, etc.," Darsa suggests. "You may not directly be able to make the connection to a past traumatic event; however, once you identify a pattern and become aware of what causes the reaction, you may dig in deeper and try to understand why you are having such a reaction."
To deal with such triggers, it is important to work on changing your thought pattern about certain triggers and learn how to distinguish what is real and what is not. To do this, Darsa says that it is important to gain the understanding that the trigger, whether it is a noise, a feeling, or a person, is not the traumatic event itself but something that reminds you of it, and you are not necessarily in a threatening situation currently.
"It is also important to gain grounding skills to help you stay present in moments of distress due to a trigger. Practicing mindfulness on a general basis will allow one to develop the ability to be in the moment and increase self-awareness, awareness of your surroundings, and awareness of your thoughts. Mindfulness practices are very beneficial in providing one with the skills of being present and to ground themselves in triggering situations," Darsa explains.
The bottom line.
Anyone who has undergone trauma of any sort knows that being triggered is no joke. And though there is no one way to heal from the complex trauma that plagues many of us, simply admitting the trauma has occurred is a huge first step toward healing. After that, if you're able to access the care of a licensed therapist who is knowledgeable about the situations you've endured, this can be an amazing step in recovery.
However, not all of us have access to therapy. Fortunately, there are also mindfulness techniques such as deep belly breathing, meditation, EFT tapping1, and a myriad of somatic techniques for releasing "stuck" emotions (think yoga, self-massage, freeform dance, or just good ol' screaming into a pillow) that we can do all on our own to take charge of triggers and begin to transform what scares us most. We write more about expert-backed ways to tackle trauma in our 2022 wellness trends.
Georgina Berbari is a multidisciplinary artist focusing on photography and writing. Through these mediums, she creates works exploring the human body, sexuality, nature and psychology. Her work has been featured in the Hecksher Museum of Art on Long Island, ZEUM Magazine, Women’s Health, Bustle, SHAPE, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. She is a Master's graduate of the creative writing program at Columbia University and a Yoga Alliance RYT-200 yoga and meditation instructor.