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Triggers and the Psychology Behind Them

By Pilar Tamburrino, M.S., LMHC, CEAP

Assistant Director, FSAP

The word “trigger” often gets used without an understanding of what it actually means in a mental health context. Triggers are external events or circumstances that may produce very uncomfortable emotional or psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety, panic, despair, or negative self-talk. Any stimulus such as a smell, sound, or image that consciously or unconsciously reminds you of a traumatic event from your past can “trigger” feelings of severe anxiety and protective behaviors like anger and emotional numbness. The stimulus itself doesn’t need to be inherently menacing or disturbing and may only indirectly remind you of an earlier traumatic event. According to the American Psychological Association, triggers are typically more distressing when they are not anticipated.

Identifying and understanding our triggers is the first step in learning to cope with them. Even though we can't avoid all situations that may emotionally trigger us, we can develop a strong inner voice to help us handle uncomfortable situations. When we know our emotional triggers, we can choose to not expose ourselves to situations that harm our mental health, or to digital content that can generate unpleasant emotions. Being aware simply helps us know our limitations and avoid, as much as possible, exposing ourselves to those situations that overwhelm us and negatively affect self-esteem. 

What to do when triggered:

1) Learn your stress signature.

The first step is to recognize that you are being triggered as soon as the signs start in your body. Each one of us has a unique “stress signature,” in which one of three things jolts us into the fight, flight or freeze response: increased heart rate, sweating or muscle tension. Pay close attention the next time you feel triggered and see which of these is most prominent for you. Biofeedback can very be helpful if you can’t figure it out on your own.

2) Calm the body.

Calming the body is an essential grounding step. Deep breathing exercises can calm a racing heart, holding onto ice can literally chill you out, and progressive muscle relaxation will not allow bodily tension to build up. When triggers occur, grounding exercises may bring you back to the present. 

When experiencing a trigger focus on your five senses. For example:

  • Name 5 things you can see right now.
  • Name 4 things you can feel right now. 
  • Name 3 things you can hear right now.
  • Name 2 things you can smell right now.
  • Name one thing you can taste right now.


3) Label your emotions without judgment.

Once your body and thoughts are calm, get clear on what exactly triggered you and what emotions you felt before, during and after the event. For most of us, it is usually a reaction related to the themes of safety and security and tied to another time in our lives where we felt similarly threatened and powerless.

4) Talk to a professional.

The American Psychological Association clinical practice guidelines strongly recommends four interventions for treating traumatic triggers associated with Post TraumaticStress Disorder. These include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Cognitive Therapy and Prolonged Exposure.The appropriate treatment can lessen reactions to triggers. Please contact the FSAP office at (305) 284-6604 if you have any questions related to the topic as well as if you need assistance for a referral to a provider in our health plan.


Source: American Psychological Association

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