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A ‘trigger’ can provoke a powerful emotional reaction. But using trauma language too casually can diminish its gravity

To truly grasp what it means to be triggered, we must understand the intricate layers of emotional responses

Incorporating clinical terms into our everyday conversations has become a common practice. However, when mental health and trauma language is used too casually or inaccurately, it can diminish its gravity. This inadvertently reinforces mental health stigma rather than helping to dismantle it.

In the realm of mental health and emotional wellbeing, the term “triggered” has become common. Often used casually in everyday conversation, its weight and complexity is sometimes overlooked. To truly grasp what it means to be triggered, we must understand the intricate layers of emotional responses, past traumas, and the profound impact triggers can have on one’s mental state.

Understanding the depths of emotional responses

Being triggered is a powerful, emotional reaction elicited by a stimulus that connects to a past traumatic event or experience. These stimuli, known as triggers, can manifest in various forms – sights, sounds, smells, or even certain words. The response triggered is not merely a fleeting emotion; it often resurfaces deep-seated, visceral reactions connected to unresolved trauma.

The triggers themselves can be as diverse as the individuals experiencing them. For one person, a certain smell may transport them back to a traumatic moment, while for another, a specific phrase can evoke intense emotional distress. Understanding triggers requires acknowledging the unique and personal nature of these stimuli, shaped by individual histories, experiences, and vulnerabilities.

When Ian*, 36, entered recovery he had just moved cities for a work opportunity and was planning a fresh, sober start in life. Over the course of 12 months Ian stayed sober. However, when his secondment ended and he returned home, he found himself craving a drink once more and battling urges that he hadn’t felt for months. It was only when Ian sought professional help to address his addiction for a second time that he looked at the underlying causes and was able to identify and name the triggers in his life that had almost caused a relapse.

For Ian, some triggers were easy to spot – for instance, the drive through bottle shop on his way home from footy training and when he bumped into two of his former high school classmates who continue to call him an offensive name . Yet, during our conversations we realised that some triggers were more subtle. Over several weeks in treatment, I helped Ian to look into his past to understand why he felt affected by seemingly insignificant things.

It was as if his brain worked overtime, reliant on past blueprints, heralding a sense of being unsafe in the present.

Ian’s father was a strict man who would often criticise and rebuke Ian as he was growing up. Ian could never meet his father’s expectations and he remained in fear of him, even into adulthood. This would lead him to isolate in childhood, with feelings of helplessness. During our sessions, Ian identified that he had core beliefs of being not good enough, being dismissed and discounted by others, with feelings of being controlled and feeling vulnerable. In his adult life, any reminders, however trivial, of not being heard or acknowledged would set within him a cascade of emotions. It was as if his brain worked overtime, reliant on past blueprints, heralding a sense of being unsafe in the present.

Having this knowledge meant Ian could build a recovery plan, complete with actions to take when he was triggered. Post-treatment, he is now able to name all his triggers, delve into the source, identify his hyperarousal and warning signs and re-establish healthy boundaries in his relationships. He was also able to accept his past experiences and prevent himself from projecting them into present situations and interactions.

To comprehend the profound impact of triggers, it is essential to recognise that being triggered goes beyond a momentary emotional upset. It involves a cascade of physiological and psychological responses that mirror the original trauma. This may include increased heart rate, panic attacks, flashbacks or a profound sense of dread. In essence, the individual is transported back to the emotional landscape of the traumatic event, re-experiencing the associated pain and fear. For those in recovery from addiction, it is important to understand our triggers and have a plan in place to cope with them when they arise to lessen our chance of relapse.

One key aspect of being triggered is the concept of emotional flooding. When triggered, individuals often find themselves overwhelmed by emotions, unable to manage or control the intensity of their feelings. This flooding can be incapacitating, leading to heightened stress levels and a sense of emotional paralysis. Understanding the mechanics of emotional flooding sheds light on why individuals might react so strongly to seemingly innocuous stimuli.

This phenomenon is an intricate dance between past and present, emotion and memory.

Moreover, being triggered is not a sign of weakness or an inability to cope. It is a manifestation of the complex interplay between past trauma and the present moment. Recognising this is crucial in fostering empathy and support for those navigating triggers. Creating a safe space for open communication allows individuals to express their experiences without fear of judgment, fostering healing and understanding.

For those supporting individuals who are triggered, it is essential to approach the situation with empathy and patience. Dismissing or trivialising someone’s triggers can exacerbate their distress. Instead, active listening, validating emotions and offering support can make a significant difference in someone’s ability to navigate and cope with triggers.

As we navigate the complexities of what it truly means to be triggered, it becomes apparent that this phenomenon is an intricate dance between past and present, emotion and memory. Acknowledging the gravity of triggers, and the profound impact they can have on an individual’s mental health, is the first step towards creating a more compassionate and understanding society. Through education and empathy, we can collectively contribute to a world where those who are triggered find solace and support on their journey toward healing.

*Name has been changed for privacy and the client’s story is an amalgam of several cases


Dr Ashwini Padhi

Dr Ashwini Padhi is a psychiatrist at South Pacific Private - Australia’s leading treatment centre for trauma, addiction and mental health.

In Australia, the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is at 1800 250 015; families and friends can seek help at Family Drug Support Australia at 1300 368 186.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash