In trauma psychology, “being triggered” means that something has activated a person’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. This could include emotions, physical symptoms, or flashbacks.
Triggers are things that remind a person of a traumatic event, such as certain places, people, smells, or times of the year.
However, in popular culture, the term “triggered” has taken on a broader meaning. People sometimes use it to describe when a person experiences negative emotions in response to a situation, whether it is trauma-related or not. This is not the term’s original meaning.
Read on to learn more about what it means to be triggered, including what triggers are, what symptoms they cause, and what helps.
In psychology, triggers are experiences or stimuli that cause someone to relive a traumatic event in some way. The trigger
Triggers remind someone of the events they experienced, either consciously or subconsciously. The connection might be obvious to others, or it could be more subtle. In either case, the reaction is sudden and does not match the situation.
For instance, if someone is moderately upset in response to name-calling, this is not an example of triggering. This is because being upset is a typical response to the situation.
However, if the name-calling reminded an individual of a past assault, causing severe panic, this would be a trigger.
Use in popular culture
Colloquially, some people use the term “triggering” to refer to anything that causes a negative or unpleasant emotion. They may also use “triggered” to refer to those who are upset or dislike something. From a medical perspective, this is incorrect.
In some contexts, misusing the word “triggered” could also be harmful. For example, calling someone “triggered” for being upset or offended could imply that having emotional reactions is bad or weak, reinforcing stigma.
The experience of becoming triggered can vary from person to person and situation to situation. A trigger may cause:
- sudden fear, panic, anger, or sadness
- feelings of being overwhelmed, out of control, abandoned, or helpless
- flashbacks, which could involve reliving a memory, reliving emotions, or reliving physical sensations
- physical symptoms such as a racing heart, rapid breathing, or shaking
- an urge to run away or fight
- freezing, which is when a person becomes immobile or cannot react
- dissociation, which is when a person feels disconnected from their body, identity, memories, or reality
From the outside, someone becoming triggered may appear to have a sudden outburst. However, the opposite could also be true — a person might seem lost or confused or may freeze entirely.
Every person is different, and what triggers one person’s PTSD may not trigger other individuals. Some common examples of triggers include:
- certain books, movies, or music
- certain smells, such as a food or perfume
- places, such as where the event occurred or spaces that remind someone of that location
- people associated with the trauma, such as perpetrators, witnesses, emergency service personnel, or those who look like them
- emotions similar to those a person felt during a trauma
- certain times of the year, such as a particular season or the anniversary of the event
The first thing people and bystanders can do to help when a person becomes triggered is to ensure they and the individuals around them are safe.
If someone is in active danger or is behaving unpredictably, it may be necessary to move elsewhere, remove any objects that could cause harm, or in some cases, enlist help from authorities.
However, in many cases, all a person needs is to feel safe. People can try the below techniques and support methods.
Offering nonjudgemental support
If a person is afraid, it may help to let them know they are not alone and to stay with them until they start to feel better.
A person may or may not want close contact at this time. Some may prefer it if an individual sits a short distance away or stands on the other side of a door. Talking with them about everyday things may be a suitable distraction, but some people may prefer not to talk.
Remember that it is okay for people to experience their symptoms and that they will affect individuals differently. A person needs only to listen to what they require. The goal is not to make the symptoms go away as soon as possible but to support someone as they go through them.
Grounding techniques help gently bring a person back to the present moment, reminding them of their surroundings. There are several ways to do this. An individual might:
- take 10 slow breaths
- count things they can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste
- drink some cool water or splash water on the face
However, some trauma survivors report that traditional calming techniques that promote bodily awareness can worsen their reaction.
If body-focused techniques do not help, a person can try looking at things in an individual’s surroundings, such as objects or colors.
A person who wants to leave a room, building, or situation can do so if this is what they need to return to a calm state.
For example, someone might leave a building to go outside or go from somewhere noisy and crowded to somewhere quieter.
The avoidance of triggers
However, avoidance also reinforces that the trigger is something to fear, which could reinforce PTSD. Additionally, it is not always possible or healthy to avoid every trigger.
Rather than aim for total avoidance, it is best for those with PTSD to learn self-care techniques in case they encounter a trigger and to work with a therapist to treat the underlying PTSD.
Gradually, they may find they are able to do more of the things they want to.
Triggers can cause a range of emotional and physical responses. How long it takes for someone to return to a calm state will depend on what symptoms they experience and how long they take to recover.
The prognosis for PTSD overall varies depending on a person’s response, how much support they have, and if they receive treatment. Around
PTSD is a treatable condition. There are several therapies for trauma that can reduce the symptoms or address the underlying cause. Some of the options include:
- trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
- cognitive processing therapy
- prolonged exposure therapy
- narrative exposure therapy
Different approaches may be effective in different people, so if one therapy does not help, a person could try another.
It is never too early or too late for trauma therapy. Individuals can begin therapy after a traumatic event or much later for any ongoing symptoms.
Triggers are things that cause a reactivation of trauma symptoms, such as intrusive memories or hypervigilance. A person may feel such as running away, fighting, or freezing, and their behavior may not make sense to others around them.
Informally, people sometimes say a person is “triggered” if they are upset or angry, but this is not what the term means in psychology.
Avoiding triggers can be a temporary measure to feel better, but this does not address the underlying condition that is causing the reaction. Anyone who experiences intense reactions to certain stimuli can speak with a doctor or therapist.