The Psychology Behind Triggers

Have you ever experienced a moment when you were feeling okay at first, but then suddenly felt anxious, afraid or depressed? Something in that moment caused a debilitating flashback to a past traumatic event, and that’s known as a trigger. They often occur to those with PTSD.

These instances can creep up on you unannounced, but by developing a better understanding of triggers, you’ll be prepared to handle them. Here’s a look at what happens in your brain when those moments occur.

Causes of Triggers

First, it can help to understand what circumstances can cause triggers. External, stressful situations—whether they’re relationship problems, family troubles or academic pressures—can set off feelings of anxiety or depression.

However, some moments might seem less obvious, and in fact, what’s made them a trigger is the connection to a certain sense, such as sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. Smell, in particular, has a strong relationship with memory. Experiencing any of these stimuli can remind you of a harrowing incident in the past, resulting in a flashback and a heightened negative emotional reaction.

Fight or Flight

Image Credit: Caleb Ekeroth

These moments can result in what’s known as a “fight or flight” response in the brain. Put simply, in a moment of duress, the mind perceives danger and prepares itself to take action. As a result, adrenaline begins to course through the body, creating symptoms of anxiety such as muscle tension, headaches, dizziness or increased heart rate.

You might experience these symptoms even when you’re not in any actual physical danger. If you face a trigger that reminds you of a past trauma, your body and mind could think that it’s time to fight or take flight, resulting in both emotional and physical changes. As a result, you might end up avoiding these situations or stimuli to decrease your chances of encountering a trigger. However, avoidance coping, which is a common coping mechanism, can worsen your condition. Instead, there are other healthier methods for you to handle possible triggers.

Coping With Triggers

Despite the fact that triggers can cause negative psychological reactions, there are ways you can anticipate triggers and manage their effects.

First, recognizing your triggers can make a big difference. This way, if symptoms arise, you likely won’t be caught off guard and you can address the issue right away. That can involve the following options:

  • Confiding in your friends and family about your triggers
  • Recording the moment in a journal so you can recognize future incidents
  • Practicing grounding techniques or acts of mindfulness or meditation

Even though your reaction to a trigger can feel overwhelming, there are ways to avoid letting triggers control you. Awareness, planning and support from friends, family and a mental health professional can be helpful, and you’ll be better equipped to handle your symptoms in a safe and healthy manner.

Feature Image: Tyler Mullins