A close-up of sparklers in a man's hand. The man's face is out of focus.A trigger in psychology is a stimulus such as a smell, sound, or sight that triggers feelings of trauma.

What is a Trigger?

In the strictest sense of the term, trigger is used to refer to experiences that “re-trigger” trauma in the form of flashbacks or overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, or panic. The brain forms a connection between a trigger and the feelings with which it is associated, and some triggers are quite innocuous. For example, a person who smelled incense while being raped might have a panic attack when he or she smells incense in a store.

The term is used more loosely to refer to stimuli that trigger upsetting feelings or problematic behaviors, and these feelings are often associated with a psychiatric condition. People who have triggers may re-engage in unhealthy behaviors when exposed to triggers. For example, a person recovering from anorexia might be triggered by photos of very thin people to begin starvation once again.

Some mental health-oriented message boards and blogs put “trigger warnings” on material that might be harmful to some people. It is impossible to predict or avoid all triggers because so many triggers are innocuous, but images of violence, substance abuse, or weapons are sometimes labeled with a trigger warning.

How Are Triggers Formed?

The exact brain functioning behind triggers is not fully understood. However, there are several theories about how triggers work. Sensory memory can be extremely powerful, and sensory experiences associated with a traumatic event may be linked in the memory to this event, causing an emotional reaction even before a person realizes why he or she is upset. Habit formation also plays a strong role in triggering. People tend to do the same things in the same way. A person who smokes might, for example, always smoke while he or she is driving, and therefore driving could trigger smoking, often without the smoker’s conscious thought.


  1. Black, C. (n.d.). The triggering effect. Psychology Today. Retrieved from
  2. University of Alberta Sexual Assault Center. (n.d.). What is a trigger? Psych Retrieved from

Last Updated: 03-9-2018

  • Leave a Comment
  • Abc


    June 8th, 2017 at 10:07 PM

    Does trigger stacking as described in dog behaviour apply to people too?

  • Jenny


    August 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.

  • Jenny


    August 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.

    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

  • PhilisophicalFalaffleWaffle


    October 23rd, 2017 at 1:34 PM

    Yeah, no. Triggering is a slang word that kids use as a joke.

  • SomeGuyJustdoinstuff


    October 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.

  • Carol


    October 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 g

    Felicia g

    November 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.

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