What Does Being “Triggered” Mean?

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“There is nothing negative about being triggered. It’s a calling to heal our wounds. It’s a calling to self-reflect + to get curious about the reaction we are having.”

Dr. Nicole Lepera

The word “triggered” has been used in recent years to describe a wide range of emotional responses, from mild annoyance to severe anxiety. However, in the context of mental health, it is more specifically used to describe a sudden and intense emotional reaction that is caused by a reminder of a past trauma. This reaction can manifest in a variety of ways, including flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, and panic attacks.

When used in this way, the word “triggered” is a helpful way to communicate that someone is experiencing a significant emotional reaction that may require support. However, it is important to use the word accurately. If you are not experiencing a flashback or other trauma-related symptom, it is not accurate to say that you are “triggered.”

There are a few reasons why using the word “triggered” inaccurately can be ineffective. First, it can trivialize the experience of people who have actually been triggered. When someone who is not experiencing a trauma-related reaction uses the word “triggered,” it can make it seem like they are not taking the experience of people with PTSD seriously.

Second, using the word “triggered” inaccurately can make it difficult for people to understand what is actually happening to them. If someone says they are “triggered” when they are really just feeling stressed or upset, it can be difficult for others to know how to help them.

Finally, using the word “triggered” inaccurately can make it seem like you are not taking responsibility for your own emotions. If you say you are “triggered” by something that is not actually a trigger, it can make it seem like you are not in control of your own reactions. Or if you are using the word “trigger” to manage someone else’s behavior, it is not effective. Not only will it devalue your own discomfort, but it might make them defensive about their behavior and critical of yours. There are Dialectical Behavior skills that are very helpful for this kind of problem.

If you are feeling distressed, it is important to be accurate in your language. If you are not experiencing a trauma-related reaction, it is more accurate to say that you are feeling “distressed,” “upset,” or “angry.” Using accurate language can help you to communicate your needs effectively and to get the support you need.

Tips for communicating your distress effectively:

  • Be specific about what is making you feel distressed.
  • Use language that is accurate and respectful. For example, “I am distressed,” “I am feeling anxious,” “I would prefer it if you…” 
  • Avoid using words like “triggered” unless you are actually experiencing a trauma-related reaction.
  • State your needs clearly. “This is how you can help me…” “I need time alone to process this…” 
  • Ask for help from others. In DBT, we can use phone coaching in between sessions for accurate use of coping skills.

It is also important to remember that everyone experiences distress differently. What triggers one person may not trigger another person. It is important to be patient and understanding with yourself and with others.

If you are struggling to cope with distress, I can help you. I have many tools I’ve drawn from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Internal Family Systems, and the Neuro-Affective Relational Model. From DBT alone, I can help you learn a number of coping skills and interpersonal skills. Get in touch today to explore how we may work together.

Hi, I'm Sharla! I am a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, and I help individuals navigate the complex emotions and struggles that life often brings. Learn more about about my background and experience here.

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