Trigger warning

From classrooms to social media posts, we are constantly being warned about ‘triggering’ information. But what is a trigger? And how can you understand and manage your own? 

Once, terms such as ‘gaslighting’, ‘boundaries’ and ‘triggering’ were seldom heard outside of a therapists’ office. Today, friends, magazines and social media will alert you to ‘red flags’, ‘overstepping boundaries’ or a ‘denying of your reality’. While a greater awareness of psychology is certainly a welcome change to past eras, there is a risk that some of these terms can be watered down or used in the wrong context. Triggering is a prime example. Now an overused word, especially on social media, being triggered doesn’t simply mean something you’ve seen or heard has made you feel bad, uncomfortable, jealous or sad. These things are hard to cope with, they might even be termed ‘emotional triggers’, but they are not real, traumatic triggers. Feeling triggered isn’t about a disagreement or your day not going well (just as OCD isn’t simply ‘liking things tidy’), it is being taken back to a moment of deep trauma by something external.    

Real trauma stays with us. Sometimes – though not always – we remember what happened, the specific details, the shock, the fear. But trauma is also a physical reaction in our bodies.

Following trauma, it is possible for us to be triggered and effectively taken back to that moment when the trauma occurred. A traumatic trigger can actually make someone feel like they’re experiencing the trauma all over again, or – in the case of people recovering from substance abuse or eating disorders – can prompt cravings or dangerous behaviour. Even though we are far from the danger of the original event, something – a song, a loud bang – can take us straight back to that moment in our minds. It is problematic because we believe the event is happening all over again, and the anxiety or pain it creates for us can be difficult to cope with if we are triggered a lot. 

Triggers of this kind are so powerful because, when we experience trauma, our bodies put us into ‘fight or flight mode’, shutting down anything non-essential and doing everything it can to keep us safe. This includes temporarily suspending the short-term memory function, causing our brains to store the experience of this event as a still-present threat, rather than merely a memory. So, when something happens to remind us of this event, it is not only the memory that returns, but every feeling we had while it was happening. In effect, we believe we are back there again, so we relive this trauma through flashbacks, physical sensations and our emotions over and over again.

Triggers exist both within us, and around us, and both emotional and traumatic triggers can come from anywhere. Externally, being triggered is a minefield. The music playing during an assault, for instance, can take a person right back to the event, as could the scent of incense burning or the smell of perfume or aftershave. Seasons, times of year, anniversaries and times of day can all be very triggering; so too can a person or place connected to an event. Movies, television, news stories and social media could contain content that sparks a memory, while personal experiences shared on social media can do the same. 

Internally, we might be triggered by a memory or an emotion – such as anxiety, anger, loneliness, fear or sadness. Or you might be triggered by a physical feeling. For instance, if you’re running and your heart is pounding, it might conjure feelings of running away from an assault, or how you felt in the aftermath a car crash. 

‘Most of the things that trigger this fight or flight response are internal,’ explains psychotherapist Anna Mathur. ‘It is down to the way we think about situations, and how we brace ourselves when we feel threatened by something. Our body is wired to believe that these situations are real, and so acts accordingly. We often feel waves of fear, grief, sadness, terror and loss, even though that thing hasn’t, or may never happen.’

When we take these traumatic experiences into our imaginations, experiencing things that are not there, we can start to lose our sense of what is real. ‘Trauma affects our imagination… traumatised people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them, and have trouble deciphering whatever is going on around them,’ explains Bessel Van Der Kolk in his ground-breaking book, The Body Keeps Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. 

Van Der Kolk explains that the impact of trauma on our imagination is very serious. Our ability as humans to use our imagination is what allows us the space to leave our daily routine to imagine a more hopeful future, new possibilities, making our dreams a reality. Imagination, says Van Der Kolk, is an essential launchpad for making our hopes and dreams come true, but when people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, their connection to their imagination fails, and without imagination, there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future. 

‘Traumatised people look at the world in a fundamentally different way from other people. For most of us, a man coming down the street is just someone taking a walk around. A rape victim, however, may see a person who is about to molest her and go into a panic. A stern school teacher may be an intimidating presence to an average kid, but for a child whose stepfather beats him up, she may represent a torturer and precipitate a rage attack or a terrify cowering in the corner.’

Clearly, it is impossible to avoid triggers. Even if we did want to become hermits, our minds and bodies won’t let us forget our trauma or emotional fragility. Our brains know that these events are important, and they want to keep them front and centre, always on high alert, to keep us safe. However triggers can also be the key to unlocking our trauma, they can shine a light on what is really going on for our subconscious. 

Therapy, time, meditation and working through trauma can help these events to shrink, and help us to understand them better. But, each day, for anyone living with trauma, and triggers, recognising your triggers and developing coping strategies are vital. 

‘Recognising your triggers enables you to gain control over this runaway train,’ says Mathur. ‘When you notice your thoughts pick up speed, or your heart racing and breath getting shallower, you can use certain techniques to help re-ground and calm.’

It’s likely you’ll already know some of your triggers. Thinking of moments when you’re reminded of trauma, or when feelings of rage, fear or envy are heightened, and then writing down what triggered them will help you to look out for them. Think about the situations you find most challenging – what thoughts, feeling, physical sensations do you have? There’s no limit to how many you might have. This process of acknowledging your triggers helps in itself, as you’ll be more aware of them in the future, and also being able to move forward with more of a sense of control over that ‘runaway train’ of triggering emotions and experiences.

Coping techniques for triggering moments

Simple breathing exercises can really help with panic attacks or when you feel your body moving into that fight or flight mode. Learn a couple of timed breathing practises you can do anywhere, and work at them so they become second nature. 

You might also find simple strength or ‘power moves’ helpful to shake yourself up and to physically move beyond that trigger. Yoga and pilates are good for this, but even dance moves, a series of simple slow stretches or a standing pose to ground you coupled with your breathing can help too. It might help, if appropriate, to take off your shoes, and let your feet connect with the earth or the floor. Focus on the sensations of the soles of your feet and what they can feel underfoot, breathe and keep turning your attention back to your feet on the ground. 

Connect with the other senses too. If a certain smell is triggering, find one that does the opposite and always have a small bottle of this in essential oil form with you. If there are sounds – birds, waves, the jungle, or songs or classical music which steadies you, save them as a favourite on your music player, or quick link. 

Visualisations are another way to reset the state you find yourself in. Grief psychotherapist Julia Samuels suggests this simple exercise if a disturbing or triggering image keeps appearing in your mind. Imagine the scene on a television, take three deep breaths, then consciously change the channel and put a positive image on screen. Take three more deep breaths, then turn the television off and shift your attention to something else. 

Find some peer support too. Shared experiences can be wonderful for removing the taboo around something and allowing you to talk it out. Creating a safe network of people – it doesn’t have to be many, just a few – that you can contact when you feel you are triggered and spiralling is a bit like having a safety net.