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What Is Triggering Your Triggers?

Just the other day, I heard myself use the term “triggered”, and felt a little cringy about it. How did this word and all its variations slip into my psyche and replace tried and true “therapy” terminology like “set off” or “button pushing”?  When did it become a thing, I wondered, and why did I feel so uncomfortable saying it?”

Well, according to Time, “Triggered” is among the 10 psychology terms mental-health experts say that we’re using the wrong way, and as you can well imagine, there’s great debate about the use and misuse of the term.  Who’s right?  No clue.  What I do know is there must be something sorely lacking in our language to describe the various levels of people’s emotional distress.

Medical News Today tells us,  “Triggers are things that cause a reactivation of trauma symptoms, such as intrusive memories or hyper-vigilance. A person may feel such as running away, fighting, or freezing, and their behavior may not make sense to others around them. Informally, people sometimes say a person is “triggered” if they are upset or angry, but this is not what the term means in psychology.”

what is a trigger

“The spread of pop-psychology terms like this is understandable, writes Janey Starling in a post for Refinery 29, "We’re all reaching for new language to explain a turbulent, polarised and overwhelming world.”

When put like that, I feel that any information that can help ease whatever level of emotional distress people suffer from should be accessible to everyone, even if their triggers are not rooted in trauma like mine are.  

Forbes Coaches Council Member, Janet Fouts, shares that, “Emotional triggers can be almost anything,”  They’re often based on an event from our past we don’t want to repeat. It could be a tone of voice, a personal characteristic, a misplaced joke or a blunder that would normally be brushed aside. Though it might seem like an irrationally emotional reaction “out of the blue," it’s not out of the blue. It’s been laying around, waiting for something to set it off.”

From PsychCentral: Triggers come in all shapes and sizes and are unique to each person. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are a few common triggers:

  • holiday or anniversary of the trauma or loss

  • certain sounds, sights, smells, or tastes related to the trauma

  • loud voices or yelling

  • loud noises 

  • arguments

  • being ridiculed or judged

  • being alone

  • getting rejected

  • being ignored

  • breakup of a relationship

  • violence in the news

  • sexual harassment or unwanted touching 

  • physical illness or injury 

nancy mendelson

Check, check check…yep, several of my own triggers made the list, how about you?  From personal experience, I can tell you that learning to identify them is the first step.  Not judging yourself, goes hand in hand with working through and overcoming them.

“When we can identify what bothers us, we can take action to protect our mental health,” writes Mariana Plata for Psychology Today. “ Even though we can't avoid all of the situations that may emotionally trigger us, we can take actionable steps to take care of ourselves and develop a strong inner voice to help navigate us through these uncomfortable situations.” 


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