A trigger in psychology is a stimulus such as a smell, sound, or sight that triggers feelings of trauma. People typically use this term when describing posttraumatic stress (PTSD).
What is a Trigger?
A trigger is a reminder of a past trauma. This reminder can cause a person to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or panic. It may also cause someone to have flashbacks. A flashback is a vivid, often negative memory that may appear without warning. It can cause someone to lose track of their surroundings and “relive” a traumatic event.
Triggers can take many forms. They may be a physical location or the anniversary of the traumatic event. A person could also be triggered by internal processes such as stress.
Sometimes triggers are predictable. For instance, a veteran may have flashbacks while watching a violent movie. In other cases, triggers are less intuitive. A person who smelled incense during a sexual assault may have a panic attack when they smell the same incense in a store.
Some people use “trigger” in the context of other mental health concerns, such as substance abuse or anxiety. In these cases, a trigger can be a cue that prompts an increase in symptoms. For example, a person recovering from anorexia may be triggered by photos of very thin celebrities. When the person sees these photos, they may feel the urge to starve themselves again.
How Are Triggers Formed?
The exact brain functioning behind triggers is not fully understood. However, there are several theories about how triggers work.
When a person is in a threatening situation, they may engage in a fight or flight response. The body goes on high alert, prioritizing all its resources to react to the situation. Functions that aren’t necessary for survival, such as digestion, are put on hold.
One of the functions neglected during a fight or flight situation is short-term memory formation. In some cases, a person’s brain may misfile the traumatic event in its memory storage. Rather than being stored as a past event, the situation is labeled as a still-present threat. When a person is reminded of the trauma, their body acts as if the event is happening, returning to fight or flight mode.
In some cases, a sensory trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they are upset.Another theory is that triggers are powerful because they often involve the senses. Sensory information (sights, sounds, and especially smells) plays a large part in memory. The more sensory information is stored, the easier a memory is to recall.
During a traumatic event, the brain often ingrains sensory stimuli into memory. Even when a person encounters the same stimuli in another context, they associate the triggers with the trauma. In some cases, a sensory trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they are upset.
Habit formation also plays a strong role in triggering. People tend to do the same things in the same way. Following the same patterns saves the brain from having to make decisions.
For example, say a person always smokes while they are driving. When a person gets in the car, their brain expects them to follow the same routine and light a cigarette. Thus, driving could trigger the urge to smoke, even if the person wishes to quit smoking. Someone can be triggered even if they don’t make a conscious connection between their behavior and their surroundings.
What Are Trigger Warnings?
A trigger warning is a notice of potential triggers in future discussion or content. The aim is to let people with mental health concerns avoid or prepare themselves for triggers. It is impossible to predict or avoid all triggers, since many are unique to a person’s situation. Warnings are often reserved for common triggers such as images of violence.
Recently, many students have requested trigger warnings in school. There has been much public debate over whether this practice is appropriate for classrooms.
Opponents of trigger warnings often argue these warnings cater to overly sensitive students. Some claim trigger warnings promote censorship. Others believe they infringe upon teachers’ ability to teach course material.
Advocates often argue trigger warnings are necessary for equal access to education. Triggers can cause flashbacks and panic attacks which disrupt learning. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), triggers are often more distressing if they come as a surprise. Advocates say trigger warnings allow students with posttraumatic stress to feel safe in class.
If a student says they have PTSD, personalized trigger warnings are appropriate. There is little research on the effectiveness of classroom trigger warnings. The APA says specific triggers can be hard to predict. Thus, generic warnings on classroom content may be less effective. If a student says they have PTSD, personalized trigger warnings are appropriate.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) forbid discrimination against people with disabilities. These laws include mental health disabilities such as PTSD. Federal law requires educators to make reasonable accommodations to such individuals.
Federal law does not specifically address trigger warnings. Yet the APA suggests trigger warnings may count as accommodations in some cases. Deliberately triggering a person with PTSD could be a form of discrimination.
Getting Help for Triggers
Trigger warnings are useful in some cases. But avoiding one’s triggers will not treat the underlying mental health concerns. If triggers interfere with someone’s daily life, the person may wish to see a therapist.
In therapy, people can process the emotions concerning their pasts. Some may learn relaxation techniques to cope with panic attacks. Others may learn how to avoid unhealthy behaviors. With time and work, a person can face their triggers with much less distress.
- ADA know your rights: Returning service members with disabilities. (2010). U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/servicemembers_adainfo.html
- Does research support classroom trigger warnings? (2017, July 27). APA Journals Article Spotlight. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/highlights/spotlight/issue-97.aspx
- Taming triggers for better mental health. (2017, March 31). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-blogs/apa-blog/2017/03/taming-triggers-for-better-mental-health
- What are PTSD triggers? (2017, February 14). Web MD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-are-ptsd-triggers#1
Last Updated: 05-2-2018
Please fill out all required fields to submit your message.
Invalid Email Address.
Please confirm that you are human.
- 41 comments
- Leave a Comment
AbcJune 8th, 2017 at 10:07 PM
Does trigger stacking as described in dog behaviour apply to people too?
HankSeptember 19th, 2019 at 9:48 AM
Is being called someones trigger mean that I’m to blame or the reason for someone else behavior …”im not blaming you Hank ,it’s not your fault that your the reason ” ..is this not the same as being blamed?
RoOctober 21st, 2019 at 9:54 AM
My son has had a TBI and encephalitis 2 yrs ago-causing short term memory loss. (and bad judgement).He was diagnosed prior to that with Bi polar2 and severe ADHD. He was over medicated since he was a child for 9 yrs at SED program.They told me their way or the highway and refused to maninstream him.Now one Neurologist thinks he may have had Autistism and was misdiagnosed which means he was taking the wrong meds as well(opposite). He became and addict for years after being taken off meds,couldn’t work ,sometimes staying at Rehabs,hospitals,Salvation Army. After he was diagnosed and released from the hospital we have had him stay with us. Frustrating,getting help,1.5 yrs to get medicaid, taken care of much of his medical needs,and pycholgists and therapists turning us down because of his memory loss. We see improvement (he remembers things that are important to him and through repetition. He will pick up cig butts from the street sneakily. When we catch him he denies,lies and we take them and take away something he enjoys,and threaten him with more of the same. He loves NA…but if he won’t be honest then is it working his program? Yesterday he did this 4 times in 10 minutes. We were beside ourselves! besides disgusting the threat of illnessdoesn’t bother him.We finally said we wouldn’t celebrate his birthday and he became angry and defiant and went and smoked.We feel we are not equipped to handle raising a 40 yr old child and told him we will find a group home. (He gets $500. from the state now.That’s haircuts,toiletries,vitamins,transportation,board,clothes-everything. Not sure who will take him. The cigarette thing is the worst-is it a trigger and how do we handle it?! He is starting a program for mornings during the week.-next week.
MaeaMarch 27th, 2020 at 10:59 AM
It can be, but not necessarily. You may unintentionally make a noise that sets off someones trigger, in which the trigger was formed due to someone or something else in the past, or you could be the reason that said person has that trigger, based off something that you have done in the past. Because I have a genuinely optimistic outlook towards this comment because of the way that it has been worded, I don’t believe (maybe ignorantly so) that you were the cause of someone’s trauma. However, if you slammed a door, you may very well have “triggered” someone’s negative or trauma related flashback/response.
JennyAugust 2nd, 2017 at 11:41 AM
Is it possible to be triggered by a smell differently? For instance I smelt something but I didn’t like it, and then on a different I was feeling emotionally down and not myself, like a lot of sad feelings, then I smelt the same smell as before and I started to remember a terrible event (not even sure which one) but it was a bad period.
JennyAugust 2nd, 2017 at 11:46 AM
Is it possible to be triggered by the same smell differently? For instance I smelt something and I knew I didn’t like it. On a different day, I was feeling emotionally down and not myself, like a lot of sad feelings, then I smelt the same smell as before and I started to remember a terrible event (not even sure which one) but it was a bad period surrounding a particular relationship.
How is possible to smell the same thing and react differently? Even after you smelt way after the traumatic experience?
Joan C.October 17th, 2017 at 1:58 PM
I need help , my daughter is austic(spectrum) dis-order and I had her in an day center.Which seem to be good in the 1St 3 years.But The staff members have borrowed money from me and wont pay it back also this place lost her clothing and tablet and food came up missing? My daughter was also being bullied by a classmate (another client) 4 black eyes in less than 6 months? I have text mess. From staff asking for monies.where can I file a complaint
Valerie FNovember 24th, 2018 at 12:42 PM
Try the better business bureau and if no help there… go to your Attorney General. You can file things thru them. Hope you got some help already, tho…was sad to read this..
SalzanoNovember 3rd, 2019 at 8:24 PM
Hi, Depending upon the amount— usually it’s $600 to file a legal complaint with small claims court. In your case you’d probably need witnesses. I would be more concerned with getting your child outta there. This disturbs me so. Protect your baby. ~ Love
PhilisophicalFalaffleWaffleOctober 23rd, 2017 at 1:34 PM
Yeah, no. Triggering is a slang word that kids use as a joke.
SomeGuyJustdoinstuffOctober 23rd, 2017 at 4:55 PM
I understand where you come from, this trigger stuff has gotten out of control, but these things are real. When actually diagnosed, these are serious business. Like a war veteran with sounds of popping or booming. Don’t discredit psychology just because a lot of people misuse it.
CarolOctober 26th, 2017 at 8:54 AM
Where do you think the kids got the slang? Because an actual thing was appropriated for the purposes of making fun at others’ expense, aka bullying. This article was probably written because so many people who will thoughtlessly make “triggered!” jokes, don’t actually know where it comes from… and apparently the point went right over some heads.
Felicia gNovember 28th, 2017 at 12:08 PM
Yes I totally agree. I work with a lot of mental health patients who have had traumatic experiences. When I hear people say that oh they triggered someone, I just start thinking how sick or ignorant these people must be to actually want to trigger someone. There are even articles written on how to trigger a liberal. I drives me crazy they would would do these things so carelessly without caring what triggering actually means. I have seen first hand and it is a horrible thing to watch someone go through it.
RMDMay 5th, 2018 at 10:55 AM
So you’ve never had dizzy fits and broken down crying because you re-experienced a traumatic event? I’d love to be you.
Pan dulce tambienMarch 3rd, 2019 at 8:49 PM
MaeaMarch 27th, 2020 at 6:05 AM
So triggers are actually represented correctly in this article. While the word is rather misused, and usually by younger generations, the actual word in its correct form is not a joke, and this behavior should be corrected by anyone GENTLY.
PersonMarch 3rd, 2019 at 8:47 PM
So I was in the school courtyard and someone tried hitting me and I had a flashback of when I was abused as a younger kid, and at first, I didn’t know what it was all I knew was that I broke down crying this article has really helped me.
MGJuly 23rd, 2019 at 12:51 PM
Education is about learning to live in the real world, which is a world that doesn’t always cater to your individual quirks and foibles. A concern not mentioned in the article is that trigger warnings rob students of a chance to practice their response to being triggered in a safe environment. Ultimately, to be successful, every student will have to learn to overcome any tendencies to respond in unhealthy ways to triggering events that can happen in the real world at any time without warning. What better place to learn than in a school where the faculty and staff are there to help the student? Does the author seriously believe it’s best to defer these lessons until the student is out in the world, dealing with other people who don’t necessarily have their best interests in mind??? Isn’t it better for the student in the long run to allow the triggering event to arrive with full impact, so that there is an opportunity to learn to cope, and steer them to professional help if necessary? Instead of trigger warnings beforehand, there could be mindfulness exercises AFTER any potentially triggering events, and an invitation to discuss either with the group or one on one with the teacher or counselor.
MaeaMarch 27th, 2020 at 6:19 AM
I can understand and agree with most of your argument; however, therapy is where people are supposed to go to learn to cope with their triggers in a healthy manner. It is very important to be aware of your own triggers and to state them if you are in school, work or family environment. Everyone may not respect them, but this practice also familiarizes and makes these sorts of “warnings” normal in society, something that keeps the peace in many situations, especially while the traumatized person is simply trying to exist. It is up to a person to share their own trigger warnings, and while the internet, or certain people, may not listen or reflect hearing about this in their actions, it is important for that person to feel like they are still normal and human and that it is okay to have personal trauma in the past, it is okay to need help and it is okay to simply not be okay. Many people do not heed trigger warnings, but at least you have told them. It is definitely important to learn not to retaliate to these things in a way that is harmful to yourself or to others, which is also why therapy is wonderful. As a student, letting guidance know or putting your trigger warnings on your transcript means that while it may feel like it is an excuse, it is valid that you may not wished to be exposed to certain media (within reason) while in a learning environment. We have watched many movies in classes where, because of my triggers, I have been given the option to only read the material, and to tune out or opt to be in a different room while the “offensive” scene that may trigger me is being played out. As for books, I can also get a summary of certain chapters from the staff, which is extremely helpful so that I do not have an anxiety attack in the middle of the day. Most things can’t be prevented, but if you make the “important” people aware of your triggers, it does help with smoother sailing. I hope you know that I mean no offense, I am simply contributing to this important conversation, and I do agree that certain reality checks are inevitable and necessary, but that anyone with or without triggers should see a therapist for coping mechanisms, as well as simple conversations as to how your week or month went. It is often a very fun and positive experience. :)
JOELYAugust 23rd, 2019 at 6:42 PM
who;s the author of this artile?
EMTUSSSeptember 4th, 2019 at 3:42 PM
Where is the information on positive triggers? Why would this article only focus on the negative?
AmelieSeptember 10th, 2019 at 8:25 PM
I completely agree
MaeaMarch 27th, 2020 at 6:25 AM
Triggers, by definition when related to psychology, are a response or stimulus related to trauma, which is quite negative. However, there is a certain word for those positive stimuli, which usually a memory, or in this article, a flashback, where that be something nice you heard, saw or smelt that brings you to associate this with another nice or positive thing that you have also experienced. And those are super cool! I experience both the negative triggers and the simple positive associations, and boy I love when the smell of good food takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. :)
KerrySeptember 10th, 2019 at 8:47 PM
SOMEONE PLEASE READ THIS I NEED HELP
So i have this super weird problem that I’ve been trying to figure out since i was 5
So my trigger word is torture and that was even really hard for me to write that cause it gives me this anxiety feeling. I cant say the word or write it without getting shivers. But the weird part is when i watch it on tv shows or read about it in books i get the anxiety feeling but its more like the feeling of when you go down a roller coaster and you get butterflies in your stomach. And so i like that feeling honestly and i have a pretty vivid imagination. When i go to bed i lay there and picture these things in my head, and its kinda fun but then I realize how insane i am to be lying in my bed imagining t* scenes. The second part of this weird thing is i get super obsessed (kinda like a crush) with people but people I absolutely shouldn’t have a crush on. The two right now is my science teacher and my camp councillor. I think its more like i look up to these people but it’s actually so annoying because i feel like they are celebrities, so i sweat and get really freaked out every time i talk to them. With my science teacher it makes sense cause he’s the best teacher i have ever had and I actually had the best time i had all year in his class. But with my camp councillor its weird cause she’s honestly kinda annoying, the only thing about her that makes sense is that she’s funny. And i cant stop talking and looking at these to people when I’m around them. Ur probably wondering how those two things tie in. Well they both give me the same feeling, which is why when my science teacher ( who is also insane ) did a little lesson on Chinese water torture my face was actually glowing red and by the end of the class i was sweating like crazy. When i got home i went on a run in the pouring rain around my Neighbourhood cause i had so much energy from the day
So that’s my problem, can someone diagnose me or something cause i have no idea what wrong with me and I’ve Been trying to figure it out all my life
SarahOctober 9th, 2019 at 12:33 PM
I really understand when certain words are triggers.
Maybe if you would like to fight your fears try saying the word or writing it down a couple times to remember that it is just a word. Maybe you are relating the word to a experience for example like a scary movie you saw. If the word gives you unbearable feelings then you can avoid the word. But when your feeling powerful and strong try imagining yourself saying the word without fear. Just like a normal word in the dictionary. Most people don’t like that word anyways it’s pretty intense. I don’t like it. But don’t let a word prevent you from living your best life besides I’m sure you don’t have to use the word much and if you do don’t say it if it makes you uncomfortable.
Everyone gets these little silly crushes on teachers it is totally normal and fine. As you get older you will realise that it is super normal. Everyone has had a crush on a teacher or that celebrity star stuck feeling, even I did back in high school. You will grow older and realise how much of a silly crush it was. Maybe you like being around them because they give you the attention you like and you just simply get along great with them. All the feelings your are feeling are normal Kerry and you will be totally fine. Have a wonderful day
Destiny LopezDecember 21st, 2019 at 6:02 PM
Kerry my triggers are like yours. Sometimes I develop these uncomfortable sexual feelings for older men and feel like I’m sexualized by them in a way. But this makes me uncomfortable, unhappy, disgusted, and sick in a way. I don’t want to feel that way about grown men and I don’t want them feeling the same way about me. I don’t know why, but I’ve felt like this for a long time. I’m placing this with my younger years when my dad would slap my butt and I came to think that my dad was “like my boyfriend” because he would also slap my moms butt
AlinaMay 7th, 2020 at 11:48 AM
What are two possible emotional triggers that could cause you to feel happy?
JosefineJuly 23rd, 2020 at 8:54 AM
I work on overcoming my social anxiety, through Joe Dispenza, and try to change my thoughts and feeling in the moments, but you can’t always catch every thought, and when I fall back in, I normally use a lot of energy to recover from the trigger, because I get very tired, and my head is full of stress, so it’s hard to restructure my thoughts and feelings when ex I’m talking with someone and looking them in the eye. Especially also because I find it hard to both discuss and be aware/change my being. Is there anything to do in that moment? When I have faced one thing and got triggered and can’t deal with anymore that day, because I’m so exhausted…
AbigailAugust 20th, 2020 at 12:59 AM
Well the comments above are all experienced, However the real issue which is left hanging is the fact that not many know how to handle or understand the triggers or the cause of these triggers. We unintentionaly are so ignorant on the traumatic signs and symptoms that we dont realise each day we contribute to the gorwing depressive and traumatic disorders in the society. I couldnt be of much help to my cousin and realised it later that what was a start to PTSD had resulted into a complex disorder bacuase of the family ignorance and behaviour. Right time to understand the symptoms and taking action is very important to reduce or increase the triggers.
PeteOctober 7th, 2020 at 11:28 AM
This article is an appealing wealth of informative data that is interesting and well-written. I commend your hard work on this and thank you for this information. You’ve got what it takes to get attention.
AlexaOctober 20th, 2020 at 10:17 AM
Thanks so much for the positive feedback. Please keep reading and posting–we love the dialogue! Cheers.
StephanieDecember 31st, 2020 at 8:44 AM
My strongest sense is my smell. I find that it really effects my moods and memories and because of this I have always been obsessed with smelling good. Especially when I became a mother. I want my children to always remember me as being someone that was clean and smelled nice. I know that this comes from my early memories of my own mother who did not smell like anything except coffee breath (which I hate but I love my mom) and anytime I smelled that it would put me in the worst mood. I keep fresh flowers in my home at all times because of this obsession. Oddly enough my early memories of my dad are triggered by the scent of an engineers work uniform (oil) and faint cigarette breath on the top of a coke can. Very nostalgic smells for me.
MERIEMApril 13th, 2021 at 2:49 AM
thank you very nice website article
WandaJune 27th, 2021 at 11:11 AM
I am always in a fight-or-flight mode when I am around a family member of mine. Whenever I see, hear, smell, or feel the presence of her, I’m reminded of incidents that happened many years ago. When I was younger, I’d get in trouble for saying my sister’s name (to this day, I still don’t say her name when referring to her), and I’d also get in trouble for eating food in the fridge and pantry. I never told my mother this, but I am suffering from bulimia and I tend to binge at least once every few months, just for one day. I feel empty, and eating helps dealing with my anxiety. Now, I can’t even look, much less be in the same room, as my mother. Whenever I’m near her or in the same space, my heart feels like it’s in my mouth, and I jump at every little sound. My face would also become very stiff and serious. Just recently, when I was putting groceries in the fridge, she yelled at me for smiling and laughing even though I wasn’t and was, in fact, trying to fit a bag of grapes in an overflowing fridge. Is there something wrong with me, and is there anything that I can do to help my internal struggles?
ArpitaJuly 22nd, 2021 at 6:48 PM
Emotional trauma is one such agonizing turn. We feel like it’s the end of our world, but it is not. Once we know how to recover from emotional trauma, we can speed up the healing process.
yuriOctober 15th, 2021 at 7:51 AM
i know this wayyyyyyyyy to well
SerenityApril 4th, 2022 at 2:12 PM
Like, positive triggers? This article did only cover negative triggers, but positive ones do exist as well. Positive triggers can be a sight, sound, person, etc… that brings back a positive memory or feeling. it can be something like a certain song that your parents would always play for you, or really anything that brings you back to a good time in life.
SerenityApril 4th, 2022 at 2:38 PM
Thank you for this article. It really helped me find out what has been going on with me for a long time now. Ever since about 10yrs old, I started to feel a flight or flight response around one of my coaches, let’s call him M. I mean, he is a huge @$s, like, I mean, he’s a good coach, but he’s not good at dealing with players. One time, my friend, let’s call her J, was crying during the game. My dad was one of the coaches and told coach M that J was crying. And he literally said “Well, I don’t care” like the little b!tc^ he is. After every game, if we even made one mistake, he would just go on and on about it. Every goddamn time. He would blame us for never knowing what to do, and then never tell us how to do anything! I would look at him for help and then just shake his head. My dad, let’s call him coach S, was an assistant coach. He was extremely helpful to the team and everybody loved him. But M just started to push him aside. For some reason, he didn’t want coach S even though coach S was the helpful one that everybody knew and loved. That made my dad want to literally quit coaching. Luckily, the season ended before that happened, but S T I L L. He was really mean to the entire team and almost everyone hated him. And I had to deal with him for so many seasons. Now every time I see him I just get that feeling, I think. It’s more like that empty feeling in your chest where you breathe really fast. Being around him just made me sick, sometimes I even got really nauseous when around him for long enough, which sucked when I had to play a game, especially 2-3 games. Even mentioning him makes me hyperventilate at this point. It’s gotten so bad at this point that even hearing his name, even if its a completely different person, brings me flashbacks of him.
Idk though maybe I’m just overly sensitive
hollyOctober 30th, 2022 at 8:16 AM
i get really angry when people use certain words like maybe and no and probably and i don’t see why i can’t tell other what to say just because it’s a freedom of speech and so i’m starting up with the words and i don’t see why then don’t cept it and so i whine and cry when i get so upset and i can’t help it either
hollyDecember 30th, 2022 at 7:51 PM
i get really angry cauase certain words trigger me like no and probably and really and maybe and are you sure
hollyJanuary 26th, 2023 at 8:33 AM
certain words trigger me like no maybe are you sure really probably yes you are i just told you why
Leave a Comment
By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.