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Triggered? Learn how to recognize the feeling and keep it in check

July 15, 2022 - 13 min read


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What is a trigger?

Symptoms of a trigger response

How do you recognize your triggers?

How can I understand and deal with my triggers?

It would be nice if we could lock all our feelings into a box and deal with them when it’s convenient. Unfortunately, people don’t work like that — and neither do feelings. We can experience the full emotion wheel at any given time, whether we’re prepared to deal with it or not.

As human beings, we’re not designed to squash our emotional reactions. Our emotions give us important information about what’s happening, internally and externally. They’re kind of like our personal alarm system. When our emotions have a clear root, we feel more at ease with them — or at least, more justified in having them. 

But every once in a while (or maybe, more regularly than you’d like) you find yourself having an emotional reaction that doesn’t feel aligned with what’s actually happening. Mental health professionals call this a trigger, and they can be uncomfortable — to say the least.

If triggers can pop up at any time, what are we supposed to do about them? How do you identify when you’re feeling triggered? Understanding how triggers form, and what they feel like, can help you create a strategy for coping with them.

What is a trigger?

Triggers are easier to identify than they are to explain. Because they’re based in our individual experiences, anything could be a trigger. 

A trigger is a person, place, thing, or situation that elicits an intense or unexpected emotional response. Any sensory stimulus can be a potential trigger. Triggers are unique from threats. Essentially, a non-threatening stimulus is triggering an autonomic (fight-or-flight) response.

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How do triggers form?

Researchers aren’t entirely sure how or why the brain forms triggers. The brain encodes traumatic memories differently than it records non-traumatic memories. Traumatic events often live just outside of conscious memory. However, our brain and body have a record of the threatening experience.

To try and avoid future harm, our brains connect the fight-or-flight response to trauma reminders — like a specific smell, sight, or sound. So when we’re exposed to a trigger, we react as if we’re under threat. This causes a reaction similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

Symptoms of a trigger response

When you're feeling triggered, it can feel like you're reliving a traumatic experience. While triggers are different for everyone, trigger symptoms are often the same.

Trigger symptoms often include:

  • Feeling scared, panicked, anxious, or unsafe
  • Elevated heartbeat, sweating, and difficulty breathing
  • Feeling like you have no control over your emotions
  • Urge to run away, escape, or other avoidant behavior
  • Rumination or negative, automatic thoughts
  • Inexplicable or unpredictable changes in mood
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Physical tension, like clenching the fists or jaw
  • Flashbacks of stressful or traumatic events
  • Delayed outbursts of anger or sadness

Any of these symptoms can arise in response to the triggering stimulus. However, what makes triggers so tricky to identify is their highly individualized nature. Here are some examples of common triggers and possible responses:

Examples of triggers

  • A person who lost their parent around Christmas gets sad, argumentative, or tends to withdraw during the holiday season.
  • A military veteran avoids loud noises or flashing lights after returning from a tour of duty.
  • A professional who was frequently talked over and ignored in a previous role may compensate by being overly assertive in their new role

While it’s impossible to create an exhaustive list of triggers — or even definitively say where they come from — you can begin to see the relationship between cause and effect. Often, once the trigger is identified, it’s much easier to spot what it’s linked to. 

For instance, in the first example above, the person experiencing grief may not even realize what time of year it is or why they’re upset. Once they connect the symptoms of grief to their current experience, they can begin to unpack them.


How do you recognize your triggers?

There are different types of triggers, but they all share one commonality: they're unexpected. A triggering event can be anything from a stressful encounter with a co-worker to a fight with your partner. Sometimes, it can even be something as small as a change in routine.

But whatever the trigger may be, it's important to know how to recognize it. Here are some ways to recognize when you might be triggered: 

1. Notice how you feel

Do you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or are you having trouble calming yourself down? Pay attention to these symptoms when they arise, particularly if they feel sudden or unrelated to your circumstances. If you’re feeling this way but you don’t know why, there’s a good chance that you’re triggered.

2. Something is bothering you

Is there something that’s suddenly weighing on your mind? If it’s a major or high-stakes issue, your concern might not be out of the ordinary. But if it’s a routine occurrence that’s got you stressed, there might be more to it than meets the eye. 

3. Listen to yourself

We’ve all had times when we can’t seem to stop venting about a particular issue. We think we’ve put it out of our minds, but when we talk about it we feel worked up all over again. If you find that you can’t stop rehashing a particular situation, something about it may have you triggered.

4. Check your feelings

Trigger reactions are notoriously explosive. After all, there’s a reason why the term “hair trigger” became a popular metaphor. If you find that you’re having an outsized reaction (or many of them), pay attention. You may not be reacting to the situation at hand, but to a underlying stressor.

What is a trigger warning?

A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of a piece of writing, video, or other piece of content that warns the audience of sensitive material. This is usually because the content contains references, depictions, or discussions that could be a trauma trigger. 

Trigger warnings can be helpful for people who have anxiety, PTSD, or other mental health conditions. They can also be helpful for people who have never experienced a traumatic event, but might be sensitive to graphic content.

These warnings are a good idea to include when the content is potentially distressing and publicly available. It can be distressing to stumble across an unexpected trigger when relaxing, watching a movie, or scrolling through social media. Trigger warnings help the viewer prepare for — or opt out of — content that would upset them.


How can I understand and deal with my triggers?

There isn’t really a “cure” for triggers. All we can do is identify when we’re upset, try to understand why, and manage our emotional reaction. At its heart, triggers are a reaction to past trauma. Our emotions — and our emotional triggers — alert us to perceived threats in our environment. Awareness and mindfulness is key to understanding why we feel threatened and dealing with those triggers in a healthy way.

Here are 5 steps to recognize when you’re feeling triggered and keep the feeling from taking over: 

1. Memorize your reaction

Every emotion has an accompanying physical sensation. When you’re upset, you likely feel it in your stomach, chest, or neck. Your mind may go blank, or you may have any of the other above-mentioned symptoms. But chances are, it’ll feel largely the same each time.

Once you start to recognize that feeling, you’ll have an easier time identifying it as a trigger. That knowledge empowers you to move away from “reaction mode” and into self-care.

2. Take a break

It’s never a good idea to respond immediately when you’re feeling triggered. Take time away from the situation to process your emotional response. Once you become practiced at recognizing when you’re triggered, you can start developing coping mechanisms to deal with them.

Even if you can’t step away from the situation altogether, there are a few in-the-moment practices that might help. Deep breathing can be done just about any time, anywhere. If you’re in a stressful conversation, you can try rephrasing and restating what you just heard to the other person. That gives you time to slow down and begin thinking through your response.

3. Understand the feelings

Acknowledging your feelings is essential. Take time to listen to your feelings without judging yourself for feeling that way. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotion you're experiencing without trying to suppress it. 

Some people may be triggered by a particular event, while others may be triggered by a certain type of person or situation. If you're not sure what your triggers are, it can be helpful to keep a journal so you can identify patterns.

4. Work with a professional

Trauma responses are complex. If you find yourself routinely triggered — or if it feels like you can’t manage your triggers — you should speak with a counselor or mental health professional. Even if you feel like you’ve got your triggers under control, talking them through with a therapist or coach can help you refine your coping strategies.

EMDR therapy can be a useful tool for working through severe trauma. Other common treatments for trauma and PTSD symptoms include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and exposure therapy.

5. Take care of yourself

Being triggered isn’t a fun experience, and it can be emotionally exhausting. Because this type of stress can involve such intense physical reactions, taking care of your basic needs is critical. Symptoms of hunger, dehydration, and physical exhaustion can trigger — or exacerbate — trauma responses.

It can help to have a set of go-to self-care practices that you can draw on when you need to calm down. If you feel comfortable, share them with a friend, family member, or coach so they can help you decompress.

Final thoughts

Our triggers are rooted in our past traumatic experiences. In an effort to protect us from further harm, our brains scan for stimuli that might indicate a threat. That means that sometimes, we have outsized reactions to seemingly innocuous stimuli.

While trauma should be treated by a licensed therapist, working with a coach can help you develop and refine emotional regulation skills. Emotional regulation helps you master the ability to notice your triggers and do the (often difficult) emotional work of keeping them in check.

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Published July 15, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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