Refresher: What’s A Trigger?

Things on the internet (and really everywhere) have been stressful lately. Conversations about race and police violence, rape and sexual violence, and harassment and online violence are just about everywhere. This means that there are triggers just about everywhere.

Unfortunately this does not mean that awareness of the nature of triggers has risen, as evidenced by this piece posted on Everyday Feminism earlier this week (come on Everyday Feminism, you usually do so much better than this). The article equates “alarm bells” with triggers. “Alarm bells — or triggers — can be people, places, subjects, smells, or sounds that emotionally impact you. Different emotions can be triggered by different situations.”

Unfortunately, this is not what a trigger actually is, and spreading the idea that a trigger is simply something that emotionally impacts you makes it much easier for people to ignore when an individual is actually being triggered. There are many people who believe that “trigger” simply means getting upset. In reality, the word trigger refers to something much more specific and much more intense than a simple emotional reaction to a stimulus (we actually just call those emotions).

The term originally came from PTSD but has since expanded to include other mental illnesses. In the most strict sense, a trigger is a stimulus that causes a flashback or memory of trauma. In the larger sense, a trigger is something that elicits an intense emotional reaction that is likely to result in symptom use. For example if someone with an eating disorder sees a picture of an emaciated person, this might trigger them to engage in disordered behaviors. It’s important to note that being triggered doesn’t mean being upset or sad or angry. It often means feeling a past trauma over again, or an utterly overwhelming emotional response. These emotions can come with negative behaviors or setbacks in coping and skill usage, which for someone dealing with a mental illness can have serious consequences.

So what’s the point of this refresher? Many people don’t understand the point of trigger warnings or misunderstand their purpose. If you think that being triggered simply means being upset, then you’re far less likely to have empathy for people who are triggered by the types of conversations that are happening right now. This often means no trigger warnings, ridicule from people who think others are overreacting, or snide comments about how trigger warnings are for those who are too sensitive.

In the midst of stressful events, it’s good to remember that other people’s brains aren’t set up the way yours is. If someone says they’re triggered, let them be. If someone asks for a trigger warning, it’s probably a good choice to respect that request. Of course there’s no way to put a warning up for every trigger. People’s triggers are as unique as their experiences. But there are some things that across the board tend to be triggering: graphic violence, sexual violence, racial slurs, discussion of dieting, and generally abusive or cruel behavior. These things are everywhere in the media at the moment, so if you run across someone mentioning triggers, trigger warnings, or their own triggered response to something, remember what that means and be empathetic.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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    1. It depends on your mental illness. And remember, PTSD works because human memory is highly associative. If only it were so simple as discussing rape being the only thing that reminds a survivor of rape. But if the room had sky blue curtains or smelled of rosewater or a particular song was playing downstairs, those things can also bring back the memory of rape.

  1. Thank you. I didn’t have a clear understanding of the difference between a trigger and something upsetting. You have clarified it nicely. I think the word “trigger” gets misused fairly often, sometimes intentionally, mostly from ignorance. Either way, misuse of the word doesn’t add understanding.

    1. This is certainly a valid concern and I think is part of what leads to not only misunderstanding, but ridicule of the concept of trigger warnings. I’m partial to the Shakesville-style “content notes” instead.

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