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Why Do We Get Triggered? Understanding the Psychology Behind Emotional Reactions

Updated: Jan 28


the face of a man screaming
Triggered


I just met a client who came well-prepared for her first session. She brought a notebook with a list of issues she thought I needed to know about her. She started by saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m very dysregulated and dissociated” in an apologetic and rushed voice. She then proceeded to read her notes, which sounded something like this:

“I have been emotionally abused since I was born and, therefore, suffer from developmental trauma. I was also emotionally neglected, which caused me childhood trauma. In my adult years, I’ve been gaslighted, triggered often, manipulated, and have been in toxic/codependent relationships with sociopaths. Therefore, I think I have attachment trauma and complex trauma. That’s why I split; my inner child is wounded, and I never feel safe or validated. I’m sure now that I was raised by a narcissistic father and a covert borderline PD mother. My older sister is the golden child, and I was the scapegoat until I went no-contact with my father a couple of years back. I did it because I don’t want to be an enabler or a flying monkey. I’m getting triggered as I speak. I think I’m getting retraumatized. Could you help me?”

I was perplexed! I didn’t even know where to start. It was evident that she read a lot, had adopted trendy vocabulary, and felt well informed about psychological issues. For people like her, I thought it would be useful to have an article for each of the pop-culture terms she used and clarify their meaning and proper use. As she used them, she was overpathologizing herself and those around her. I already have an article on codependency that you can read here. This one will try to expand on the use of the term “trigger.”


A “Trigger” vs “Being Triggered”

The term “triggered” has gained popularity in recent years and is frequently used in online and social media contexts to describe people who become suddenly overly emotional or upset about something. This was how my client was using it. While it could be valid, she was using it to convey the state of her mental health. So, she was not using it in the way it is supposed to be used in psychological context.

“Being triggered” was originally used to describe experiences of people who had been traumatized. It refers to a specific set of emotional and physiological responses that are activated after confronting or facing a “trigger,” which then connected the person with their past traumatic experiences. Triggers activate traumatic memories, meaning one’s personal damaging and threatening experiences, not traumatic experiences of others, or disturbing topics in general.

Let me illustrate with an example. If I see a rape scene in a movie and have not suffered from rape in my life, even if I feel upset, disgusted, and distressed, I am not triggered. Only those who have been raped or have witnessed rape would be triggered by a rape scene.


Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and trauma authority, was one of the first individuals to use the term “trigger” clinically. He has described triggers as “cues in the environment that are associated with the traumatic event and that can activate a person’s memories of the trauma.” From there, the concept of being triggered has been further developed and applied more broadly to describe intense emotional reactions to stimuli that remind people of past traumatic or difficult experiences.


Internal vs External Triggers to Emotional Reactions

Triggers can be external or internal, and they can vary from person to person. External triggers may include certain smells, sights, sounds, or situations that remind an individual of a traumatic event. An external trigger could be the smell of burnt rubber after a car crash for someone of the image of a red light for another. Internal triggers may include certain thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations that are associated with the traumatic experience. An internal trigger may be a sensation of tightness in the ribs similar to the pressure from the steer wheel during a car crash. Therefore, triggers could also manifest as feelings such as fear, anxiety, panic, or distress, but not in isolation, and not the type of fear, anxiety, panic, or distress that we all experience at some point. Instead, they are similar to the feelings experienced during the time when the person’s nervous system was struggling to survive.

As you can see, using the same term “trigger” to describe regular experiences and common emotional reactions trivializes or minimizes the experiences of individuals who suffer from the aftermath of traumatization.


Trigger Warning: This May Not Affect You

The use of trigger warnings may have contributed to the overuse of the term “getting triggered.” Trigger warnings originated in online communities, particularly on forums and social media platforms, as a way to protect individuals who could be triggered by traumatic content. These warnings became commonly used to alert individuals to potentially triggering material, such as discussions or depictions of traumatic events, violence, or other sensitive topics. Trigger warnings are intended to give individuals who have experienced trauma the opportunity to opt out of or prepare themselves for potentially distressing content, as exposure to reminders of their trauma can be retraumatizing. This is why trigger warnings are important. The use of trigger warnings has since expanded to other contexts at the request of many users, and they are now common in academic settings, where they may be used in course syllabi, lectures, or class discussions to alert students to potentially sensitive material. However, if everyone who becomes upset watching or hearing something upsetting calls themselves “triggered,” then the purpose of the warning is less clear or useful.


Developing Triggers As the Traumatization Occurs

There are many individuals who are in traumatizing relationships without being aware that their system is being altered. This happens in many emotionally abusive relationships. In those cases, people “learn” to defend themselves from some of the abuses. The brain learns that the attacks and abusive behavior are debilitating the person’s system and putting them at risk. Through the mechanisms activated as protections, there are memories that accumulate as imprints of hurts and threats from previous fights that then become triggers. Many abusive people go back and forth from attacks to blaming, or from love bombing to despise. So the triggers may even take the form of rejection of positive gestures because the brain learns to identify that a gift may be the precursor of a fight, abandonment, or punishment. In those cases, the “trauma” may not be easy to pinpoint as such, but the trigger is still connected to the traumatic experiences.


Triggers as a Diagnostic Tool

Being triggered is a sign of being traumatized and may even be diagnostic. For many traumatized individuals, recognizing that they are triggered is not as easy as it sounds. Most of them are reactive because they believe that they are being harmed. Identifying that they are reacting not necessarily for what they are going through in the moment but because they are re-experiencing the pain from when they got harmed in the past, is a real progress. Once a person identifies their triggers, they can start intervening with reality testing and regulation skills to manage their responses. If a client talks about being triggered without providing further details, they run the risk of being perceived as traumatized instead of simply emotional. There is a vast middle ground between the interventions needed to help people resolve one extreme versus the other.

 

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