Trigger, Triggered, Triggering: How to Use Them


We are hearing more and more of the three T’s coming up in our conversations about mental health, trauma, and stress, but what do they really mean? First, let’s break it down starting with the root word.

Trigger: Noun

a small device that releases a spring or catch and so sets off a mechanism

Trigger: Verb

cause (an event or situation) to happen or exist.

Simple enough, right? How can we relate it to mental health, trauma, and stress?

Trigger: Noun

a small device
a memory, a word, a place, or an association to
a traumatic event or series of events
that releases a spring
mental, physical, or emotional reaction such as dissociating or
hyperventilating
and so sets off a mechanism
panic attack, target behaviour/problem behaviour, thoughts or
urges to harm self, suicidal ideation, destruction of belongings,
putting self in unsafe environment

Sentence example: “I saw one of my triggers today on TV and had a panic attack.”

Trigger: Verb

cause a situation of event to happen or exist
the activation of mental, physical, or emotional reactions leading
to acting on dangerous or impulsive behaviours due to exposure
to a memory, word, place, or association with the traumatic event
or series of events.

Sentence example: “Going there will trigger me.”


When trauma occurs, the brain changes. Associations to the trauma which may seem mundane to those looking in on the situation can be earth shaking for the person who is triggered. For example, when I hear the sound of keys jingling I am triggered because it is an association with my traumatic events. I can experience feelings of impending danger, that my physical safety is threatened, feelings of low self worth and I can have many bodily reactions such as trouble breathing, shakiness, pain in my chest, and crying. Without the trauma, I would not react that way to the sound of keys jingling. The trauma had reformed my brain to react with distress to that sound.

Triggered or Uncomfortable?

What’s the difference between finding something uncomfortable or being triggered by it? When something makes you uncomfortable, you can identify that, notice it, think clearly, and maybe even cope. When you are triggered by something, all clear thought leaves you. The distress you feel is intense to the point of acting on impulses that you may feel will make it stop, and it makes it very difficult to cope effectively. You may lose emotional literacy when you are triggered, mean you cannot identify what it is you are feeling, why you are feeling that way, and how to make your pain more bearable.

“Triggered” In Social Media and Online Gaming

The word triggered has become somewhat of a loose phrase on social media and gaming culture. As a disclaimer, I’m not here to pick on people who like to play video games, however the language used in online platforms is often stigmatizing and patronizing of real problems that people have to deal with.

Why Does It Matter?

Empathy. Empathy is why it matters. If we can’t find a place in ourselves to be empathetic when we are enjoying ourselves, how can we have the presence of mind to be empathetic people when others are in distress. If we desensitize our society to the word “trigger”, we are belittling the experience of trauma survivors and showing that we have no empathy for what they struggle with. And we struggle with a lot.

Like I mentioned in the “Talking About Suicide” article, changing your language is hard, but it can do so much good. Let’s try and make the world, whether digital or physical, a safer place for everyone, including trauma survivors.


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