It’s normal to feel upset, anxious, or extremely uncomfortable when we encounter difficult content. Having a strong reaction to information that is generally considered troubling or difficult information is normal. Learning how to self-regulate (aka “calm down”) after being exposed to difficult content is part of normal emotional development.
Trauma triggers are different.
Trauma triggers aren’t getting upset about commonly-upsetting topics. Triggers can be sights, smells, a certain touch, a feeling, or sometimes- much more rarely- exposure to topical information. Trauma triggers often include a loss of a person’s sense of time, space, or “self.” When triggered, emotion is amplified OR completely muffled OR sometimes seemingly unrelated to the situation. Triggers are like a trap-door in the brain of a trauma survivor.
Additionally, a person who is triggered usually has some awareness that they are upset, but won’t recognize it as a trigger. If they are aware they are triggered, the individual is often confused about why they are triggered. Therapy, along with my educational worksheet on locating triggers, can be helpful to identify and process through trauma triggers.
Troubling Topics and Triggers: A Venn Diagram
In a culture where we are using WAY more mental health lingo day today than previous generations, and growing a cultural familiarity with the DSM-5 (the psychological diagnosis manual) that would leave Freud in fascinated horror, I think it’s important to actually normalize getting really upset in response to things that should be really upsetting. That’s not pathology, it’s humanity.
“Trigger” is a tricky word in our psych-savvy modern language. It feels familiar to most English speakers, so as we’re culturally starting to talk more about mental health, it’s not surprising that it’s a word that often gets used without an understanding of what “trigger” actually means in a mental health context. Here’s a doodle on the difference between something that causes emotional discomfort and a trauma trigger.
Not all triggers are what you’d think of as difficult topics, not all difficult topics are triggers. Triggers are intensely personal to each individual and can range from people/places/things to ideas to relationship dynamics, and just about anything else.
Learning to recognize triggers as we work through trauma is not so we can carefully and precisely avoid them. Instead, naming triggers as we work through trauma is all about growing awareness of how we are impacted, developing skills to help soothe ourselves, and creating a game plan so that we can find ways to return to ourselves after a trauma trigger. With time and practice, triggers can shrink from giant trapdoors in our path down to little puddles we know how to splash through.
For some trauma-survivor advocates, trigger warnings are promoted as a way to navigate difficult topics as potential triggers, but are they actually helpful? New research presents evidence that Trigger Warnings may actually have the opposite of the intended effect.