What is a Trigger?

Coach Becs
Triggers are things that pull you out of the present moment.

For example, someone who was bitten by a dog as a child might get “triggered” when a dog walks into the room. The friendly golden retriever on a leash isn’t a threat, but because of previous experience, the brain connects “dog” with “dog bite” and sends messages to your body to be on full alert – even though there is no threat in the present moment.

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, notes that “triggers can vary widely from person to person.” Reactions can be physical or emotional, and  “after experiencing a trigger, a person may feel overwhelmed, powerless, scared, unloved and weak, among many other feelings.”

People don’t always know that a trigger is affecting their emotions or judgment.

There are different types of triggers. Some are external, like watching news stories about war or violence, seeing a person that is connected to a difficult experience you had, a specific location, holiday, sound, smell, or time of day. An argument can be triggering or a change in a relationship.

Examples of Internal triggers include emotions, feelings, or thoughts that cause distress. A physical sensation or certain touch can be an internal trigger and also a personal memory or perception of an event.

Not everything upsetting is a “trigger.” Seeing something disturbing on the news, passing a street corner where you witnessed a car accident, or getting into an argument with a friend can cause strong reactions, but these are expected and understandable. Learning how to respond to these situations is a part of maturing emotionally.

A trigger is different. A trigger is something that can truly disregulate the mind or body, often in disproportion to the situation. It is something more than being upset or angry; it is a trauma response that can be much harder to regulate than an emotional response.

There are some different ways to cope with triggers. (If you are affected by triggers, a mental health professional can guide you through the process of making these less intense.)

Coping skills include: building awareness of what triggers you and planning a strategy for when you encounter triggers, practicing relaxation techniques, reaching out to a friend, and keeping a journal. Exercising at whatever level you are able to can help reduce accumulated stress in the body, and listening to music can be relaxing and help bring you back to the present moment.

If you are around someone else who is triggered, there are some helpful ways to respond. First, try not to judge them or accuse them of overreacting. If the person is close to you, you may learn what triggers them and help them avoid those situations until they feel more capable of handling them. (Respect their right not to share, or to wait to share more until they are ready.) Ask about what strategies work for them and how you might help. Don’t take another person’s behavior personally.

Our brains are complex, and anyone experiencing a trigger should be met with empathy and compassion. We may not always be aware of what is triggering us. And we do not know what another person has been through or what may cause them to react in a certain way.

Remember that triggers can pull someone out of the present moment in a way that they may not always be able to regulate. Over time, coping strategies can be learned to make the experience of triggers more manageable, and even transform them into an opportunity for learning and personal growth.

This isn’t a character flaw or an overreaction - it is the way the human brain tries to protect us from harm!

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