Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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Triggers, within the realm of mental health and well-being, refer to specific external events, situations, or circumstances that can precipitate intense emotional or psychological discomfort. These discomforts may manifest as anxiety, panic attacks, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, or negative patterns of thinking. While experiencing reactions to such triggers is a common aspect of human psychology, it's crucial to recognize and address these triggers appropriately. Without proper recognition and management, triggers can lead to a progressive deterioration of a person's mental state, potentially escalating into more severe psychological symptoms.


Erin L. George, MA-MFT, says, "Triggers can range widely from person to person. What might even seem silly to one person could send another into a panic attack or be the preceptor for Major Depression. Triggers aren't always as obvious as one might expect. They can be something as simple as a smell, type of food, or even the make of a car to a person who was in a bad car accident. They can be objects, people, situations, current events, dates, and just about anything. What makes them a trigger is simply how a person responds to being exposed to them."

The objective of understanding triggers is to enhance self-awareness regarding what may provoke these responses and to formulate strategies for either avoiding these triggers or effectively managing the reactions they elicit. This proactive approach aims to bolster an individual's coping mechanisms, thereby mitigating the risk of a more serious decline in mental health. The benefit of this approach is that a person gets their reactions under control without the need for professional help. However, working with a therapist to address triggers requires a minimum of 12 sessions to fully address them.

Identifying Your Triggers

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Recognizing and recording your triggers is a crucial step toward managing your mental health more effectively. This process involves being attentive to the external events, situations, or interactions that lead to a noticeable increase in emotional or psychological distress.

Here are some steps and practical methods to help you identify and track your triggers over time:

  1. Create a Trigger Journal: Designate a notebook or digital document specifically for tracking your triggers. Label it as your Trigger Journal. This is a dedicated space where you can record and reflect on any events or situations that precipitate feelings of anxiety, sadness, or other distressing emotions. It's okay if you don't know all of your triggers or even any of them at first. A big step in identifying your triggers is to pay attention to what your body and mind tell you in certain situations and when exposed to certain things. As you make a habit of paying attention to your reactions to things, your ability to identify triggers will become clearer.
  2. Reflect Daily:
    Make it a habit to reflect on your day each evening. Try to recall any moments when you felt particularly uncomfortable or distressed. Describe in writing the event or situation, the emotions you felt, and any physical sensations or thoughts that accompanied these emotions.
  3. Identify Patterns:
    Over time, regularly review your entries to identify patterns. Look for recurring situations, events, or interactions that consistently lead to distress. This could include specific people, places, conversations, or dates that bring about a strong emotional response.
  4. Use Specific Descriptors: When noting triggers, be as specific as possible. Instead of writing "work was stressful," detail the exact scenario, such as "during the team meeting when my idea was criticized." This specificity will help you pinpoint triggers more accurately.
  5. Rate the Intensity:
    For each trigger identified, consider rating the intensity of your emotional response on a scale from 1 to 10. This can help you prioritize which triggers have the most significant impact on your well-being and might need more focused strategies to manage.
  6. Reflect on Physical and Emotional Responses: Alongside the trigger, jot down both your emotional response, such as anxiety or sadness, and physical reactions, such as heart racing or sweating. Understanding the full scope of your reaction can aid in developing coping mechanisms.
  7. Spot Early Warning Signs: As you become more familiar with your triggers, you'll start to notice early warning signs of distress. Recognizing these signs early on can empower you to implement your coping strategies before your symptoms escalate.
  8. Continuously Add to the Journal:
    Acknowledge that identifying triggers is an ongoing process. New triggers may emerge, or you might become more aware of subtle triggers over time. Keep adding to your journal as you discover more about your reactions to different stimuli.

By actively engaging in this process of identifying your triggers, you'll gain invaluable insights into the specific factors that impact your mental health. This awareness is the first step toward developing effective strategies for managing your reactions and enhancing your overall well-being.

Erin L. George, MA-MFT, says that the process of recognizing your triggers can be challenging and won't happen in one day. "It's okay to take your time with this and allow yourself space to reflect on situations and events you suspect are triggering and even to change your mind. Remember that only you have your life story and experiences, and no one else can define your story or reactions for you." That said, it can be helpful to understand triggers that are more common as you process your thoughts on this topic.

Examples of common triggers include:

  • Anniversary dates of losses or trauma
  • Frightening news events
  • Too much to do, feeling overwhelmed
  • Family friction
  • The end of a relationship
  • Too much time alone
  • Judgment, criticism, or put-downs
  • Financial problems or big bills
  • Physical illness
  • Sexual harassment
  • Loud noises
  • The presence of someone who has treated you badly
  • Certain smells, tastes, or noises
  • Exposure to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable

The Science of Triggers

Understanding the science behind triggers involves exploring how our brain responds to stimuli that it perceives as threatening, leading to the fight-or-flight reaction. This primal response is rooted in the brain's amygdala, a region critical for emotional processing, which signals the hypothalamus to initiate a series of neural and hormonal cascades. The result is the release of adrenaline and cortisol, preparing the body to either confront the threat directly or flee from it. This physiological reaction encompasses increased heart rate, heightened senses, a surge of energy, and other bodily adjustments to enhance survival capabilities in the face of perceived danger.

Triggers vs. Discomfort

It's essential to distinguish between triggers and general discomfort, as they elicit different levels and types of responses from the brain and body.

Triggers are specific stimuli that lead to an intense emotional or psychological response due to past trauma, significant stress, or deeply ingrained psychological issues. These reactions are often disproportionate to the triggering event itself but are deeply rooted in previous experiences or fears. Triggers can invoke severe anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, or overwhelming emotions, often directly connected to previous traumas or significant negative experiences.

The brain's response to triggers is intense and complex, involving both the amygdala's immediate reaction and the longer-term processing impacts on the hippocampus (involved in memory) and prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making and emotional regulation).

Discomfort, on the other hand, refers to feelings of unease or mild distress that arise in uncomfortable but non-threatening situations. These experiences do not typically evoke a deep-seated psychological response but rather a temporary state of unease that resolves once the situation changes or is addressed. Discomfort might stem from new or unfamiliar situations, minor stressors, or challenges that push us slightly out of our comfort zones. The brain's response to discomfort is more about mild stress or anxiety management, often engaging the prefrontal cortex's problem-solving and regulatory functions without triggering the full-blown fight-or-flight response.

Creating a Triggers Action Plan

Developing a personalized Triggers Action Plan is a strategic approach to manage and respond to triggers effectively. This plan involves both proactive measures to prevent the escalation of trigger responses and reactive strategies to employ once you encounter a trigger.

Here's how to create a comprehensive Triggers Action Plan:

  1. Identify Your Triggers: Utilize the insights from your Trigger Journal to list the specific triggers that affect you. Understanding what sets off your emotional or psychological discomfort is the first step in managing your responses.
  2. Develop Proactive Strategies:
    Decide on measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of encountering triggers or to lessen their impact. Proactive strategies include:

  • Routine Maintenance: Establishing a daily routine that supports your mental well-being, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep
  • Stress Reduction Techniques: Incorporating practices such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises into your daily life to lower overall stress levels
  • Setting Boundaries: Learning to say no or distance yourself from toxic situations or relationships that frequently act as triggers
  • Seeking Support: Building a support network of friends, family, or mental health professionals who understand your triggers and can offer help or advice

  1. Outline Reactive Strategies:
    These are specific actions you can take once a trigger has been activated to manage your response and minimize discomfort. Examples include:

  • Take a Time Out: Remove yourself from the triggering situation to give yourself space to cool down and regain control.
  • Practice Emotional Regulation Techniques: Use grounding techniques or mindfulness to bring yourself back to the present moment and reduce the intensity of your reaction.
  • Seek Immediate Support: Contact a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional who can provide immediate support and perspective.
  • Engage in Distracting Activities: Redirect your focus to healthy activities that you find calming or enjoyable, such as listening to music, reading, or engaging in a hobby.

  1. Implement and Refine:
    Put your plan into action. As you encounter triggers, utilize both your proactive and reactive strategies. After you've experienced a trigger, reflect on what worked and what didn’t work. This reflection process is crucial for refining your action plan to make it more effective over time.
  2. Educate Yourself and Become More Aware:
    Educate yourself further on the nature of triggers and coping mechanisms. Knowledge is power, and understanding the psychological underpinnings of triggers can enhance your ability to manage them.
  3. Manage and Practice Patience:
    Recognize that managing triggers is an ongoing process that requires practice and patience. Over time, your ability to effectively use your Triggers Action Plan will improve, leading to greater emotional resilience.

Examples of Strategies in Action:

To illustrate the practical application of a Triggers Action Plan, let's explore real-life scenarios where individuals employ both proactive and reactive strategies to manage their triggers effectively:

  • Proactive: Jane knows that crowded places can trigger her anxiety. She proactively chooses to visit stores during less busy hours and practices mindfulness to reduce her overall stress levels.
  • Reactive: When John encounters an unexpected work-related trigger, he takes a brief walk outside. He uses grounding techniques by focusing on the sensory details of his environment to manage his immediate stress response.

Creating and utilizing a Triggers Action Plan is a dynamic and personalized process. It empowers you to manage your mental health proactively and reactively, contributing to a greater sense of control and well-being.

When to Seek Professional Help

While personal strategies and action plans can significantly aid in managing triggers, there are instances where professional intervention becomes necessary. Recognizing the signs that indicate the need for professional help is crucial in maintaining your mental health and well-being. Plus, understanding the various therapy modalities available for trigger management can empower you to seek the most appropriate form of support. For example, exposure therapy and EMDR are two highly successful trigger management therapeutic modalities.

Signs that you may need to seek professional help include the following:

  • Persistent Distress:
    If your emotional or psychological distress persists for an extended period and interferes with your daily functioning, it's a sign that professional help may be necessary.
  • Escalating Symptoms:
    An increase in the intensity or frequency of symptoms, such as panic attacks, severe anxiety, or depression, suggests that your current coping strategies may not be sufficient.
  • Impairment in Daily Life: Difficulty performing at work, maintaining relationships, or carrying out daily activities are indicators that professional assistance could be beneficial.
  • Reliance on Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: Turning to substances such as alcohol or drugs or engaging in self-harm as a way to cope with triggers is a clear sign that professional support is necessary.
  • Feelings of Being Overwhelmed:
    If you feel overwhelmingly powerless against your triggers and nothing seems to help, seeking professional guidance can provide new strategies and hope.

Recognizing when professional help is necessary and being aware of the therapeutic options available are critical steps in effectively managing triggers. Professional support can provide tailored strategies, deeper insights, and a path toward healing and resilience that may be challenging to achieve alone.

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