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A Guide to Understanding Triggers

I realize that each of the prior posts discussing triggers did not properly address what triggers are and how they form. Therefore, this post, with efforts to support a greater understanding of how to manage responses to triggers, will discuss what triggers are by definition and how they form through a psychological lens. So let's jump right in...

The Definition

A trigger is defined as a "stimulus that elicits a reaction. For example, an event could trigger a memory from an experience while simultaneously" [causing] an emotional response, or as referred to in psychological terms a "state of emotional arousal," (American Psychological Association, n.d).

In other words, triggers are fundamentally circumstances, situations, scenarios, things, places, people, and or experiences that give way to recollections of past experiences, whether experiences are negative or positive. Most often, however, people associate negative experiences with triggers and call them traumatic experiences or trauma triggers. However, contrary to popular belief, triggers can be both negative and positive. The two elements required to cultivate triggers are one, an event, place, or thing (etc.), and two an emotional response.

A Second Look at the Causes of Triggers...

With consideration to the definition shared, remember that triggers can be associated with positive and negative experiences, people, places, and or things. So when we think about what prompts or causes a trigger, it is important to assess the situation that cultivated the trigger.

For example, if you are listening to a love song and you are triggered to recall a specific relationship, that song is identified as the trigger and could prompt a positive or negative recollection of that relationship, yielding either a positive or negative emotional response. A positive response would be to smile, cry or dance with joy when triggered, whereas a negative response would be to get angry and throw something in frustration once triggered.

Another example would be if you are scrolling on social media and see a video of a fight, and you are triggered to recall a fight or argument from your past whether it happened directly to you or you witnessed it. In either scenario, the trigger is the video you witnessed. However, as alluded to in example one, regardless of the trigger, your individual experience may prompt you to respond in either a positive or negative way.

So, remember, triggers do not only represent truama; they can be both negative and positive in nature!

Symptoms of Triggers

Now with a greater understanding of what triggers are, and another look at what causes triggers, we can start to gain a better understanding of the symptoms that present as a result of triggers.

For the sake of clarity, symptoms are regarded as non-normal responses to experiences that prompt vivid recollections, accompanied by an emotional response. And while I despise the use of "normal" in my formative years, because I am very conscious of the fact that normal is extremely relative, for this post, I will speak of normal in terms of conditioned responses. For example, a conditioned response would be to assume that when you see children happy and playing at a birthday party the "normal" response would be to smile at their enjoyment. The opposite of that would be a non-normal response to cry or be overcome with sadness. Where the non-normal response would be identified as a symptom.

Again, triggers may present in a variety of circumstances, so I must call out that the list of symptoms that I will share does not speak to all possible symptoms, but mainly the most common. So, as you are considering "symptoms" as a response to trauma, you must keep in mind that your individual experience, along with current stages of development, culture, and personality all play a role in not only how the symptoms present, but what symptoms may present.

COMMON SYMPTOMS Symptoms include (but again not limited to) extreme fear or sadness, flashbacks, compulsiveness, irrationality, withdrawal, codependency, addiction, elevated heart rate, lack of focus, heavy breathing (panic), dizziness, muscle tension/pain, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, etc.

These symptoms are associated with several diagnoses/disorders, e.g. anxiety, hyperactivity, PTSD (post-traumatic stress), and depression to name a few. When recognizing symptoms, it is also important to understand that they are typically associated with a disorder, so professional psychological support must be also sought.

Remember, triggers are common and should be embraced for personal development and growth!

Managing Responses to Triggers

The first thing to understand when attempting to establish a healthy (adaptive) response to triggers, is that you must have a great understanding of who you are, the experiences that you've had, and those you neglect to address, etc. Because essentially, understanding your triggers is entirely about understanding you. Therefore, managing triggers not only requires having a sufficient understanding of how they arise but also an ability to objectively assess your experience and history of behaviors. this will support establishing healthy or adaptive behaviors and coping strategies in response to triggers.

Managing triggers requires active self-assessment and awareness!

Active self-assessment requires complete self-awareness because you simply can't spot areas of improvement if you are not willing to and or lack awareness of their existence and the potential need to change. However, once you can self-assess and identify the irregularities in your response to a trigger, you can determine better ways to respond. And managing your response, can drastically decrease or eliminate symptoms experienced.

Managing responses to triggers can be exercised and maintained by way of the following:

  1. Understanding the root of the trigger

  2. Recognizing the need to address and modify a negative response

  3. Actioning adaptive responses

  4. Setting boundaries to maintain adaptive responses

Some adaptive strategies/responses are positive self-talk, focused breathing, hobbies, e.g. reading, learning musical instruments, bird watching, yoga, meditation and other spiritual rituals, and exercise.

When developing adaptive (healthy) coping strategies, however, it is important to remember that excess of anything can be unhealthy, so be mindful not to overindulge even in "healthy" activities. Addiction is not always associated with negative or unhealthy habits.

Setting healthy boundaries is most effective after the trigger has been identified and an adaptive response has been put in place. But once recognized, it's appropriate to articulate what you need from those around you to minimize the frequency with which you encounter triggers; support that by articulating the why, or by simply stating you are not ready to discuss your feelings but would appreciate that the circumstance, situation, thing, person, etc. is avoided until you can respond in a healthy (adaptive) way. The best thing about setting boundaries is that you have something to hold yourself and others to. And for those who fail to support your needs, you know to disassociate for your well-being.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psycology: Trigger. Retrieved March 25, 2023

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Audridom the blog created by author and blogger Audreyanna Garrett, stands to give birth to spirits of acceptance, encouragement, understanding and forgiveness, as well as help diminish spirits of fear, desperation, doubt and frustration, all while encouraging us to move forward in truth to something greater. 

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