What does it mean to be triggered?

Alexis Baker, Blue Tree Clinic’s intern and aspiring clinical psychologist writes about what it means to be ‘triggered’ and what can help.

Nowadays, the term ‘triggered’ is frequently thrown around on social media as a way to describe people who are offended by, or uncomfortable with, certain content they see online. While it is true that on Instagram or twitter etcetera people should be careful not to hurt others feelings, the term ‘triggered’ has a much more substantial meaning within psychology in a way that genuinely impacts some people on a daily basis. It is therefore important to acknowledge and distinguish between being genuinely triggered and simply feeling offended or rubbed up the wrong way.

What are triggers?

The concept of a trigger is most often associated with the strong memories or flashbacks to a traumatic event experienced by those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that makes them feel like they are experiencing the trauma all over again. Having certain things that lead to, i.e. trigger, these strong flashbacks is a key feature of PTSD, complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder, however triggers can also impact people with other mental health issues too.

For example, people who struggle with substance misuse may have certain triggers that make them more inclined to use substances or people struggling with anger management may have certain triggers that lead to them becoming more verbally abusive. In simple terms, a trigger can be anything in day to day life that causes symptoms of a psychological problem to worsen.

Some traumatic events that can lead to the onset of triggers commonly include:

  • Loss of a loved one
  • Serious physical injury
  • Continuous psychological abuse
  • Exposure to violence including military conflict

A traumatic experience and the resulting triggers are very specific to each individual. The triggers that form can be internal (e.g. stress, pain, loneliness, certain memories) and also external (e.g. specific dates and occasions, specific people, tv shows/movies, specific locations, sounds/smells), and they can often cause an emotional reaction before the individual realised why they have become upset.

How are triggers created?

Although the exact reason why triggers develop is still debated, it is widely believed within psychology that traumatic memories and stored differently to non-traumatic ones in that they are processed less effectively by the brain. Since the trauma is not processed, features of everyday life that remind you of the event and can therefore become triggers that your brain assesses as being an immediate threat. Because of this, triggers can cause experiences within the body to mimic those which occurred during the original traumatic experience and you may respond through panicking and feeling upset or by seeking unhealthy ways to cope (e.g. using substances).

How to manage them?

People who struggle with triggers tend to be very aware of what they are and how to avoid them, although this is often easier said than done. Firstly, it is important to reflect on whether something has genuinely triggered you as a result of a traumatic experience or whether you are simply feeling some discomfort. If you feel yourself being genuinely triggered, taking the time to reflect and acknowledge when you are being triggered can be useful to identify a consistent pattern of things in everyday life to be aware of. This can also help you predict when things may be potential triggers in the future (e.g. if you feel triggered when you hear people shouting then you may be aware that going to see a violent movie with lots of shouting may also have the potential to trigger you). You may feel that the only way you want to manage these triggers is by avoiding them, however this can become emotionally exhausting, especially if they are hard to avoid (e.g. certain weathers, a day in the year, feeling stressed, being alone). It is important to release victimhood and any belief that you are not strong enough to overcome these triggers, thereby accepting responsibility for your actions and reaching out for any further support you require. For example, you may find it useful to identify what helps you to feel calm when triggered rather than avoiding the trigger all together, such as by focusing on breathing or calling a friend. Other people also find certain distractions such as listening to music with headphones or playing a calming game on their mobile phone useful ways to momentarily reduce feelings of being triggered.

If you feel you are regularly experiencing triggers and this has started to negatively impact your life, it is vital that you seek out further professional support. Clinical professionals can not only help to focus on what your triggers are and healthy ways of coping, but also provide you with the opportunity to explore your original traumatic experience to help you process it more easily. Here at the Blue Tree Clinic, our psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapist are always able create a safe space in your journey towards regaining control of your mental health and wellbeing.