What Are Emotional Triggers?


The term “triggered” has been co-opted and misused by many people around the world. In this way, it’s almost lost its meaning and many people aren’t able to identify when they’re experiencing an actual emotional trigger. 

So what is an emotional trigger anyway? Why does it matter?

Being triggered isn’t as simple as being uncomfortable (though they may both be true). Instead, it’s a flood of emotions and thoughts that can be debilitating. 

We’re here to explain triggers so you know what to do if you or a friend is reacting to something that jogs a traumatic experience or bad emotional state.

Read on to learn more. 

What Is an Emotional Trigger?

So we’ve all heard the term “triggered” by now, but what does it mean? 

When it’s not being overused to malign anyone with feelings or emotions, a trigger is something that “triggers” a bad feeling in someone who’s recovering from any kind of traumatic event. 

We generally only think of trauma-related conditions being related to former military members, but this isn’t true. Anyone can have some kind of deep-seated trauma that can come back up when something “triggers” it. 

Basically, seeing, smelling, or even hearing the triggering thing is enough to put someone back into a bad place.

Our senses are contacted to memory. They go through the amygdala which is involved in the process of storing and retrieving memories. 

Even if someone has put the upsetting thought into the backs of their mind, hoping to keep it away forever, one bad trigger can dredge the thought back up.

What Kinds of Things Can be Triggering?

Many people are under the impression that the only rational triggers are extreme. They may understand how fireworks or war movies may trigger a veteran, or how scenes of assault may trigger an assault victim, but it goes deeper than that. So what are triggers?

For some people, certain songs can be triggers. What was happening last time you listened to that song?

For others, even “minor” things like explicit scenes in television shows or overcrowding in venues are enough to trigger bad thoughts or a full-on anxiety attack. 

You should never feel silly about experiencing a trigger. Even if you see it as “silly,” remember that your emotions are valid and there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s inappropriate for anyone to make fun of something that someone has a genuine triggered reaction to. 

What Is a Trigger Warning? 

You’ve probably seen “trigger warnings” all over television and the internet, right? 

These warnings exist because people know that the content within the video, image, or text may be triggering to someone. While technically all things can be triggers, these trigger warnings often warn about violence, sexual assault, sexual content, and even flashing lights if someone has epilepsy. 

While many people malign the use of trigger warnings in popular media, in reality, they’ve almost always existed. We know what things are “NSFW” (or not safe for work) based on their mention of violence or sexual content.

We know how to mark videos with age suggestions because we understand what is and isn’t appropriate for certain age groups.

Trigger warnings are an extension of this. They’re there to let you know what’s coming and determine whether or not you’re in a place to be seeing that content. 

Some more helpful media forms put the trigger warning with a specific timestamp so you’re able to enjoy the media and still avoid the triggering scene, sound, or image. 

It’s easy to say that the media is going overboard with trigger warnings, but if it makes even one person more comfortable, it’s a good thing. 

How Can I Identify Triggers?

If you’re worried about triggering things in your own life, you should try to identify your triggering things. It can be a confusing process and some things might surprise you. 

Pay close attention to your emotions and physical sensations when you feel like something might be on the edge of triggering you. Does a certain song make you panic? Have you found yourself tensing up and getting panicked in certain locations?

Not every trigger is going to result in a full breakdown. You may start dissociating, experiencing extreme anxiety, crying, lashing out, or experiencing any other reaction to bad stimuli. 

If you’re in therapy, consider talking to your therapist about approaching and desensitizing yourself to triggers that are hard to avoid in your day-to-day life.

How Should I Cope With Triggers?

When you’re starting out, it can seem difficult to cope with triggers when they stimulate such negative and overwhelming emotions. This is where a good therapist can come in to save the day. 

Your therapist will work with you to identify the potential solutions to your problems. When you’re new to triggers, it’s best not to try to “desensitize” yourself without proper guidance. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid anything triggering at all costs, but it does mean that you should be gentle with yourself.

In the moment, make sure that you know breathing techniques to help you manage anxiety. Your therapist may help you with these. Someone may also prescribe you a medication that can lower your anxiety.

Emotional Triggers Are Valid

When you find yourself getting uncomfortable, anxious, or panicked in an unexpected situation, you may be experiencing an emotional trigger. You may not even be aware that there was anything to trigger in the first place.

So what is an Emotional Trigger? It’s anything that can dredge up uncomfortable emotions that lower your quality of life. 

Remember, there’s nothing wrong with you when you experience emotional triggers. 

Are you looking for a therapist to help you manage and overcome your triggers?  At Southern California Sunrise, our experienced professionals want to help you heal. Contact us so we can figure out the best option for your situation. 

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