A trigger, sometimes referred to as a stressor, is an action or situation that can lead to an adverse emotional reaction. In the context of mental illness, referring to triggers usually means something that has brought on or worsened symptoms. Often, we don’t talk enough about triggers as discussion tends to focus on what happens after a person has been triggered, which is when the situation is much harder to address. Understanding, identifying and working to prevent triggers can be more empowering and effective.
Triggers are individualized experiences that vary widely from person-to-person. For example, a trigger may elicit a physical reaction, such as heavy breathing or sweating. A trigger can also spur an emotional reaction, like thinking “I am being attacked, blamed, controlled, disrespected, hurt and judged.” After experiencing a trigger, a person may feel overwhelmed, powerless, scared, unloved and weak, among many other feelings. These feelings can be very difficult to address and quite detrimental to mental health.
A person’s behaviours based on their emotional reaction can range from relatively minimal to serious, such as acts of violence. Someone exposed to a trigger while symptomatic may be more vulnerable and the emotional reaction may be stronger. Additionally, a trigger can impair judgment and some people may lack insight about their reactions. It is also important not to assume that you understand the emotional response of someone who has been triggered or suggest that someone who has been triggered is overreacting, being “too sensitive” or being irrational, even if the trigger may seem insignificant.
Ways to Cope
There are many possible coping strategies. Strategies should seek to eliminate, avoid and reduce the impact of triggers and emotional reactions. Each person must identify what works best for them through trial and error. Different coping strategies may work for different triggers and emotions.
Learn to identify: Consider reactions to past triggers: who or what was involved, where, when and why it took place. Observe patterns and obvious signs of risk to prevent a similar situation (like ceasing to watch televised news of war or similar).
Make a plan to address: Create a plan to address triggers and emotional reactions. You may want to talk to loved ones to let them know how they can best help you when you are triggered. Be sure to carefully address triggers that occur repeatedly, because each time they do, the emotional reaction may be greater.
Try problem-focused coping: Confront your stressor directly or try to find a solution to the stressor.
Try emotion-focused coping: When you cannot eliminate or avoid a trigger, focus on regulating your reaction to a stressor which may help reduce the stressor’s impact. For example, meditation can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
Communicate if someone is triggering you: A person triggering another person often does so unintentionally. Talk to them about their actions and their impact to clear up any misunderstandings and consider possible solutions. Have an open, calm and understanding dialog. Be willing to work with them. If the person who is triggering you refuses to act sensitively, it may be best to set clear boundaries.
Reality-check your thoughts: To minimize the escalation of thoughts and feelings, it may be helpful to “reality check” thoughts to assess their reasonableness. A few ways to do this include:
- Fact checking: Consider the facts and whether they support your interpretation.
- Identify faulty or inaccurate think, perceptions or beliefs.
- Reframe: Reshape automatic negative thoughts into positive thoughts.
- Proportionality: Ask yourself, is the reaction disproportionate to the trigger?
Look for trigger warnings: Triggers warnings can help alert you to triggering material, especially materials related to violence.
Practice self-care: Prioritizing your mental health can help build resilience against potential triggers. You may want to practice mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing or journaling.
It’s difficult to control our triggers; however, we can learn from our experiences. We can apply what we learn to manage and limit the risk of being re-triggered. We can’t diminish or dismiss the trigger or only focus on what happens after we’re triggered — we must also focus on what we can do beforehand.
Each time we’re triggered is a learning opportunity that can help us manage our reactions in the future. If we can’t control the trigger fully, we may be able to limit the emotional reaction to it before it becomes problematic and harder to address. We might even be able to prevent the trigger by preparing for it. We can have some control, and anything that gives us a little control over our mental illness can help keep us well.