Trigger

A close-up of sparklers in a man's hand. The man's face is out of focus.

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.

References:

  1. ADA know your rights: Returning service members with disabilities. (2010). U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/servicemembers_adainfo.html
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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

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  • Abc

    Abc

    June 8th, 2017 at 10:07 PM

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

  • Hank

    Hank

    September 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?

  • Ro

    Ro

    October 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.

  • Jenny

    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

    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

  • Valerie F

    Valerie F

    November 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..

  • PhilisophicalFalaffleWaffle

    PhilisophicalFalaffleWaffle

    October 23rd, 2017 at 1:34 PM

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

  • SomeGuyJustdoinstuff

    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

    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.

  • RMD

    RMD

    May 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 tambien

    Pan dulce tambien

    March 3rd, 2019 at 8:49 PM

    Same(:

  • Person

    Person

    March 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.

  • MG

    MG

    July 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.

  • JOELY

    JOELY

    August 23rd, 2019 at 6:42 PM

    who;s the author of this artile?

  • EMTUSS

    EMTUSS

    September 4th, 2019 at 3:42 PM

    Where is the information on positive triggers? Why would this article only focus on the negative?

  • Amelie

    Amelie

    September 10th, 2019 at 8:25 PM

    I completely agree

  • Kerry

    Kerry

    September 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

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    October 9th, 2019 at 12:33 PM

    Hey Kerry,
    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

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