Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/21/2022
Triggers and trigger warnings have become a commonplace element of communication for many people in the last decade, which presents a mixed bag of benefits and problems.
For some, mental health triggers can cause severe or crippling trauma responses that need to be avoided at all costs. For others, these triggers present a more complicated problem: too much exposure can be bad, but no exposure can be worse in the long run.
A mental health trigger doesn’t necessarily affect everyone in the same way — meaning, what might trigger you, may do nothing for someone else.
To understand and control your triggers is a process — and one that starts with education about why triggers form.
Let’s dig in.
While the idea of “triggering” is a popular and contentious topic in the media these days, triggers in general are actually a common, familiar experience with a simple definition. The word trigger simply indicates an event that causes an effect — and that can be as simple as opening a fridge door, which triggers the light to come on.
With respect to your mental health, triggers are simply events that contribute to changes in your emotions, thoughts or behavior. A trigger can be a hug that makes you feel loved, or a high five that makes you feel connected or appreciated.
But triggers can be more serious than what we’ve mentioned, and in many cases it’s these severe mental health triggers that are the ones people refer to — especially when they’re related to trauma.
Triggers related to trauma can create vivid memories and emotions similar to the ones you experienced when the trauma happened. And when they’re so intense that they negatively affect your mood or ability to function, it can cause depression, anxiety, self harm and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a condition in which memories or sudden recollections of traumatic events cause the same intense feelings of fear, pain and misery that you experienced with the trauma itself.
PTSD is commonly associated with military combat experience, but death threats, sexual assault, sexual violations, serious accidents and injuries are all types of traumatic events that can cause post-traumatic stress, and create triggers — triggers that some people need to avoid to function normally.
There are many ways to be triggered but in terms of the types of triggers, there are really two main categories: internal and external.
Internal triggers happen inside our heads. It’s what happens when your mind drifts and suddenly finds itself on the topic of an ex partner, or an embarrassing moment in a classroom that makes you feel ashamed. Feelings associated with these memories may not be as strong as they were when the events occurred, but they can still be quite potent.
You can feel sad remembering a relative who passed away or feeling stressed about an exam. Happy triggers, like thinking about your partner in the middle of the day, can affect you as well.
When something outside your mind does the triggering, it’s an external trigger.
External triggers might include things other people say in conversations, familiar songs, noises like fireworks or sirens, as well as particular smells.
Research on the relationship between emotional trauma and triggering events is still ongoing, and the medical community is still working on understanding what causes one person to develop trauma after traumatic events while someone else isn’t affected.
Typically, trauma responses are immediate and quite intense, lasting several weeks or months. Anxiety, anger, sadness, insomnia, and trouble focusing are some of the most frequently reported symptoms.
Triggers are typically established as your brain makes associations between your trauma and certain thoughts, feelings, sights, sounds and really anything else.
Witnessing someone using drugs can be triggering to people who lived with abusive users or watched someone they loved overdose. Fireworks can trigger people who experienced trauma related to gunshots or explosions.
The point, however, is that triggers can be different for everyone. A sexual assault survivor may be triggered by discussions of sexual assault, or they may not; they may instead be triggered by scents, sounds or other memories associated with the event.
This is a good time to talk about the sometimes controversial topic of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings have become a polarizing topic in the last decade, as people have argued that they are both a necessary precaution for some, and a form of coddling for others.
Trigger warnings represent a nuanced space for “good and bad” analysis. What is good for one person who has experienced severe trauma might indeed be unnecessarily cautious for someone on a healing journey or practicing exposure therapy.
At the individual level, the only thing that’s clear is that more research is needed.
There’s relatively little research about the effects of trigger warnings, but a 2018 study cautiously concluded that based on their findings, trigger warnings might present a threat to “psychological resilience.”
In other words, trigger warnings might make people less psychologically able to deal with triggers when they encounter them.
Experts however have poked some holes in this conclusion. Despite the perceived threat to resilience, trigger warnings also offer some (perhaps unintended) benefits that bend them back in the direction of a net good.
Trigger warnings may help individuals better assess their own vulnerability to certain triggers by calling attention to the feelings the triggering issues cause. Trigger warnings might also decrease anxiety by removing uncertainty from the experience.
There still aren't firm guidelines on how trigger warnings should be displayed or worded, and more research is needed to fully help understand any potential negative effects related to trigger warnings.
Dealing with negative triggers, regardless of how mild they may be, is typically something best done with help from a mental health professional.
Triggers may fade with time, but they may not fade without support, and likewise support may help you reduce the impact of triggers on your feelings and behaviors more quickly.
For most people, traumatic event effects lessen over time, and the trauma response — that intense stress sensation associated with raised cortisol levels — will begin to fade.
But the National Institute of Mental Health says that you can expedite the process with some particular types of self care.
When the trauma is recent the following actions could be helpful:
Keep yourself on a schedule.
Spend less time alone.
Talk to people about your feelings.
Take care of your physical health.
But when triggers continue to occur over time, it may be time to seek mental health support.
Mood disorders like PTSD, depression and anxiety respond well to therapeutic practices, and professionals recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), to help patients build awareness about their triggers, and begin to see them, analyze them, and exert some control over them with the ultimate goal of making the triggers manageable.
Exposure techniques are also considered effective, but it’s best to let a professional decide if this will be an effective strategy for you.
A mental health professional might also prescribe medications to target the panic and other anxiety symptoms that can happen when triggered. Interestingly enough, the most effective medication for this today is certain antidepressants — in particular, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
SSRIs work to help you regulate your moods by balancing your brain’s levels of serotonin, which is a chemical in your brain that has a potent effect on mood .
A healthcare provider might recommend one or both of these treatments, as well as other approaches tailored to your particular needs. That’s why getting help is such a good idea.
PTSD, anxiety and other mental health conditions make us all particularly susceptible to severe emotional responses when we're triggered, so if you're seeing signs of mental illness like those of an anxiety disorder, it may be time to talk to a healthcare professional.
Our daily lives are full of potential triggers, so if you've started to feel that your emotional reactions to certain things are out of proportion, talking to someone is smart, healthy and the right thing to do.
Online psychiatry is a great way to get the help you need conveniently, without a commute. But whether you seek support over a video chat or on a couch, do the right thing for yourself, and get the mental health treatment you deserve.