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What Does “Triggered” Actually Mean?

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What Does “Triggered” Actually Mean?

The term “triggered” often refers to the experience of having an emotional reaction to a disturbing topic such as violence or the mention of suicide in the media or a social setting. Though this term is commonly used to refer to the experiences of those with PTSD, the term “trigger” can also be used in the context of other mental health illnesses. This includes substance use disorders, OCD, depression, and anxiety. In these cases, a trigger is anything that prompts an increase in or return of symptoms. For example, a person recovering from a substance use disorder might be triggered by seeing someone using their drug of choice. The experience might cause returned cravings and even relapse.

How Triggers Are Formed

Researchers believe that traumatic experiences are stored differently in our brains, and when something reminds us of that traumatic event, our brain and body are responding as if they were in the moment again. 

A trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they have become upset. Often, triggers have a strong sensory connection (a sight, sound, taste, or smell) or are linked in some way to a deeply ingrained habit. For example, someone recovering from alcohol use disorder might associate a particular activity with drinking, such as getting paid on Friday and feeling the urge to purchase alcohol for the weekend.

Types of Triggers

Triggers vary widely from person to person and can be internal or external. The following are examples of events that might be considered triggers.

Internal External
An internal trigger comes from within the person. It can be a memory, a physical sensation, or an emotion.  External triggers come from the person’s environment. They can be a person, place, or a specific situation. 
Examples include feeling overwhelmed, angry, vulnerable, anxious, tense or stiff, or shutting down to avoid the situation. Examples include media that has imagery or sounds that remind you of a traumatic event, significant dates or holidays, smells, locations of importance, or arguing with a loved one. 

Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings can get a bad rep in the media, but we want to assure you that it’s okay to tread carefully when engaging in situations that may remind you of your trauma. On the flip side, we can all help each other prepare for topics, imagery, or situations that some may find distressful. 

If you are going to be publishing or sharing something that may be potentially disturbing to others, you should clarify it at the beginning, e.g. [TW: sexual violence]. Be careful not to use language that could also be harmful.

“Healing happens when you’re triggered and you’re able to move through the pain, the pattern, the story and walk your way to a different ending.”

How to Cope

Sometimes, trying to avoid a triggering situation is reasonable. However, if avoidance hinders your ability to complete daily tasks, you should seek help.

Learning to cope with triggers you can’t anticipate or avoid requires emotional regulation, which is most often aided by therapy. The following are a few effective, healthy coping strategies for lessening the impact of triggers:


Empower yourself by preparing to cope with triggers. Learn to recognize physical signs of reacting to a trigger, such as changes in your breathing, so that you can respond with strategies to calm yourself and shift your emotional state. If you have experience with a substance use disorder, it’s especially important to be aware of your triggers to prevent the possibility of relapse.


A Note From Sage

If you regularly feel triggered and unable to cope with situations or feelings that arise in your mind or body, make an appointment with a healthcare provider or mental health professional to discuss your symptoms.

For more information about our services, contact us today at

1 (505) 884-1114
or get started with our new patient intake process here:
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Our mission at Sage Neuroscience Center is to create collaborative teams of healthcare providers to engage those we serve to achieve sustainable wellness.

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