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"Triggered" - what are triggers, and what does it mean to feel this way?

Over the last few years, you have probably seen the phrasing "Trigger Warning", or "TW" in posts online, or heard someone say that they were "triggered" by something. Triggers are defined as anything that might cause a person to recall/relive a traumatic experience they went through in their past. For example, graphic images resulting from a fight scene in a movie (think James Bond style - explosions, bullets, blood) can be triggering for people with violent trauma in their past. Less obvious things, which can be anything from a song, to a smell, or even particular colors, can also be triggers depending on someone's experience.

A trigger warning is simply a way to let people know that the content within might contain triggers. This gives those people who WOULD be triggered by such content the opportunity to avoid it all together. Triggers aren't anything new in relation to mental health, but attention has been brought to them much more in casual conversation and in mainstream media in recent years, which has lead to confusion and debate regarding the topic.

Triggers are very real

With regard to mental health, a trigger refers to something that effects your emotional state. Usually, this effect is serious/severe and can cause extreme overwhelm or distress. A trigger can affect your ability to be present in the moment, and can bring up specific thoughts or emotional patterns that influence your behavior.

Trigger reasons, and the triggers themselves, vary widely and can be both internal and external. Phrases, sounds, and odors can all be triggers to people who have experienced the traumatic events such as:

  • military conflict

  • emotional abuse

  • physical assault

  • rape

  • loss of a loved one

Reading, watching, or absorbing content about something similar to a person's traumatic event can trigger distressing flashbacks or memories for people who are living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Substance use/abuse disorders often involve triggers as well. Many people find it helpful to learn their triggers so that they can recognize when they are happening, and choose to either avoid them all together or come up with a plan to deal with the emotional aftermath. Part of treating conditions like PTSD and substance use disorders is usually involves working on healthy and productive ways to cope with your triggers.

Triggers have nothing to do with sensitivity

Trigger warnings have been more common lately, covering topics such as:

  • rape and other forms of sexual assault

  • violence

  • child abuse

  • homophobia or transphobia

  • incest

  • racism

  • self-harm

  • animal abuse or death

  • pregnancy-related issues

  • suicide

  • sizeism or fat-shaming

  • eating disorders

The above is definitely not a complete list - however, descriptions or situations related to any of the above can absolutely cause triggering effects in people who have experience traumatic events revolving around them.

Sometimes, shows even have trigger warnings before the episode begins relating to the content:

  • nudity

  • insects

  • bodily waste, such as vomit, urine or feces

  • blood

  • medical issues

  • political viewpoints

  • religious topics

With the uprising of casual use of trigger warnings, we assume it's all from a good place - and it usually is! But this can actually be detrimental to people suffering from traumatic disorders because it helps perpetuate the opinion that people suffering with trauma are overly sensitive, fragile, or incapable of coping. This also comes from people who do NOT suffer traumatic events expressing that they are "triggered" by something.

Triggers can be hard to communicate

If you've experienced trauma and actively deal with triggers, the debate surrounding the topic can be uncomfortable. Maybe you've experienced pushback or disbelief when you've told someone you felt triggered. You could also just be self-conscious about sharing your triggers, because often times people have a knee-jerk style reaction to any mention of the topic.

If you are in a situation where someone is bringing up a triggering topic to you, there's a few tips you can utilize to help diffuse the situation.

  1. State your feelings as specifically as you can: "When you said X it made me feel anxious/afraid because of my history."

  2. Put boundaries down: "It's hard for me to talk about X. If it keeps coming up in convo, I'll step out next time."

  3. Ask for a warning: "I know it's kind hard not to talk about X. Could you just let me know ahead of time that it's going to come up?"

Navigating these conversations is challenging, and can sometimes be scary - but remember that trauma is a very real complex, and it affects everyone differently. Just because your feelings are different than others, doesn't mean they are wrong or incorrect.

Trauma doesn't always cause triggers

Just like triggers can vary, ending your traumatic experience and dealing with triggers is just as different per person. Some people who experience traumatic events never encounter triggers. This comparison between sides of people suffering from traumatic experiences, having and not having triggers, causes a lot of argument about the legitimacy of triggers in the first place.

But traumatic experiences effect everyone differently! Two people could have the exact same traumatic experience, but respond to them in very different ways. This is due to a wide range of factors, which can include:

  • underlying mental health conditions

  • access to a support network

  • age during the traumatic experience

  • family history

  • cultural or religious experience

In the end, "Triggered" has taken on several new meanings, especially in recent years. This has caused a lot of confusion surrounding what it means, what they are, and what happens to people who experience them. For people who have experienced trauma, being triggered is a very real, very frustrating and unpleasant truth. While it may not be the intention, utilizing the term to describe someone you believe is overly sensitive, or very emotional, leads to more stigma surrounding the term, and surrounding mental health in general.

To continue bettering mental health of those we love, and those around us, it is important to do your research on situations you don't understand or don't apply to you, and provide love and support to those around you suffering with the emotional drain that comes from being triggered with regard to your past traumas. We are all one human race, and we all deserve the support needed to foster positive mental health, and positive lifestyles.


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