Triggers are sensory reminders that cause painful memories or certain symptoms to resurface.

If you experienced a traumatic event, you likely remember certain sounds, smells, or sights related to that experience. Now, when you encounter these sensory reminders — known as “triggers” — you may get a feeling of anxiety, unease, or panic.

Or perhaps you live with substance use disorder, where the smell of alcohol or a certain scene can trigger your symptoms.

Triggers can be anything from a holiday to a perfume scent to a loud voice. But how do triggers form, and what can you do if you’re triggered?

In psychology, a “trigger” is a stimulus that causes a painful memory to resurface. A trigger can be any sensory reminder of the traumatic event: a sound, sight, smell, physical sensation, or even a time of day or season.

For instance, the sound of fireworks can be a trigger for combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Or a certain type of dog might be a trigger for a person who was bitten as a child.

Apart from trauma, the term “trigger” is also used in other mental health contexts. A trigger can be anything that activates or worsens the symptoms of a mental health condition, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or substance use disorder.

For example, a person with contamination-type OCD might be triggered by the sight of a dirty doorknob and react with extreme fear. Or a person with alcohol use disorder might be triggered by the smell of alcohol and suddenly start craving a drink.

What does ‘triggered’ mean?

The word “triggered” is used more casually nowadays, which has likely caused some confusion. But it’s important to note that there’s a difference between being uncomfortable or offended and having a true mental health symptom.

In general, when a person is “triggered,” they’re being provoked by a stimulus that awakens or worsens the symptoms of a traumatic event or mental health condition.

A person’s strong reaction to being triggered may come as a surprise to others because the response seems out of proportion to the stimulus. But this is because the triggered individual is mentally reliving the original trauma.

For example, an adult who experienced abandonment as a child might feel triggered from an unanswered text. The uncertainty of why they didn’t receive a response may cause them to relive feelings of abandonment.

A 2004 study revealed that our senses (e.g. sight, smell, sound) play a significant role in forming memories. One theory proposed that trauma-related triggers may feel so intense because our senses are highly involved.

When we experience trauma, our brains tend to store the surrounding sensory stimuli to memory. Then, when we encounter these sensory triggers years later, the brain may reactivate the feelings associated with the trauma. In some cases, we may not even be conscious of why we are afraid or upset.

For instance, if you got into a bad car accident while listening to a certain song or while chewing grape bubble gum, these sensory experiences could become triggers for years to come.

But whether it’s a one-time event or a series of traumatic events, trauma affects each person differently. In fact, the same event could cause two people to respond completely differently. While one person might reach a point of acceptance about an unsettling experience, the other person might develop PTSD.

This difference in response could be a result of a wide range of factors. According to 2014 research, the way a traumatic event impacts an individual depends on several factors, including the:

  • individual’s personality traits and sociocultural history
  • specific characteristics of the event
  • stage of the individual’s emotional development
  • meaning of the trauma to the individual

Triggers come in all shapes and sizes and are unique to each person.

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are a few common triggers:

  • holiday or anniversary of the trauma or loss
  • certain sounds, sights, smells, or tastes related to the trauma
  • loud voices or yelling
  • loud noises
  • arguments
  • being ridiculed or judged
  • being alone
  • getting rejected
  • being ignored
  • breakup of a relationship
  • violence in the news
  • sexual harassment or unwanted touching
  • physical illness or injury

Trigger warnings are designed to warn trauma survivors about potentially disturbing content. These warnings originated in online forums for survivors of sexual trauma, where individuals would warn other readers about the upcoming content.

However, the use of trigger warnings has now expanded to a wide variety of settings including social media, entertainment, and educational settings.

Trigger warnings may now warn of the following:

No doubt, these warnings may help certain people with PTSD, particularly if they’re in a vulnerable state in that given moment. However, there is some debate on whether trigger warnings are ultimately helpful.

One 2020 study suggested that trigger warnings reinforce a survivor’s view of their trauma as central to their identity — something that is counterproductive to the healing process.

In addition, the widespread and casual use of trigger warnings can send the wrong message to the general public. Some people may believe that those who need trigger warnings are weak or incapable of handling stress.

Others may casually say they’re triggered anytime something angers or upsets them, further causing the word to lose its meaning.

  • Try to have perspective. As soon as you feel triggered, try to take a birds-eye view of the situation. Recognize where these intense feelings are coming from — likely not from the trigger itself, but from a previous traumatic experience.
  • Remind yourself that you are safe. Next, try taking slow deep breaths and remind yourself that you’re safe now. You can repeat a mantra in your head, if that’s helpful for you. You might remind yourself, “I am safe. This is not then.”
  • Practice self-compassion and acceptance. As much as you can, try not to get irritated with yourself for having these feelings. Direct compassion toward yourself as you would a close loved one.
  • Try meditating. Practicing meditation may also be a helpful tool to help reduce your anxiety. A 2013 research review involving 207 studies found that mindfulness meditation is an effective way to lower anxiety, depression, and stress. There are even trauma-informed mindfulness practices you can try.

A “trigger” is a stimulus that awakens a painful memory, feeling, or symptom. People who experienced trauma or who have a mental health condition are particularly vulnerable to triggers.

If you experienced trauma or live with anxiety or a substance use disorder, please don’t hesitate to reach out for support. A mental health professional can help you come up with a treatment plan to reduce your symptoms and improve your well-being.