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What Is a Mental Health Trigger? Everything You Need to Know

The word ‘triggered’ has become part of everyday conversation. People often use it online to describe if they or someone they know has been emotionally charged by an incident or image. Sometimes the word is used to entice a demographic to take action in the form of civil protest. TV shows, films, and social media posts may display a ‘trigger warning’ before content is played. Counselling Calgary here, especially in addressing these emotional responses, plays a crucial role in supporting individuals through such experiences.

Because the word is used so often, it can be hard to know exactly what it means. In the context of mental health, a trigger is anything that brings a past traumatic event to mind. In the past, triggers may have been ignored, unrecognized, or dealt with in unhealthy ways, such as by abusing benzodiazepines or overeating. But today’s world has seen a rise in mental health awareness, leading to people identifying how they and those around them react to events or situations.

Below we’ll explore what mental health triggers are, identify some common ones, and share tips on how to go about handling a trigger.

What Exactly Is a “Trigger”?

Feeling stressed can be enacted by several outside factors, including work disagreements, relationship issues, or arguments with family. You may ponder the situation for a couple of hours, then move on. However, when something triggers you, you may have a visible emotional reaction. Being triggered takes you out of the present moment because your mind is occupied with fear from a past traumatic event.

Some examples of traumatic events are:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Violent episodes, such as warfare, prison experiences, or school fights
  • Losing loved ones
  • Substance abuse


The severity of these events can be felt stronger if they were experienced at a young age or over a long period. A trigger can look very different for everyone. For example, war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder may not feel triggered watching a movie about military conflict, but they may show an outburst of emotion if they hear a firework go off nearby.

Next, we’ll identify what else can be considered a trigger.

Identifying Triggers

Usually, triggers are explicit, but this isn’t always the case. Depending on the person’s past, almost anything can be a “trigger” that elicits an overwhelmed emotional state. A trigger can work on all five senses and come unexpectedly. Sometimes, people may not realize something is a trigger until after they’ve reacted.

Some common triggers people experience today are:

  • Content or conversations that are homophobic, racist, or misogynistic
  • Violent videos
  • Loud and sudden noises, such as fireworks, crashing utensils, or yelling
  • Political conversations
  • Graphic images
  • Certain smells
  • Isolation

Some people may have discomfort when they’re exposed to any of the above triggers. However, feeling uncomfortable and experiencing a flashback to past events are two different occurrences. Both are valid and should be discussed with trusted confidants.

A reaction from a trigger can include:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Shaking
  • Crying
  • Sweating
  • Inability to express yourself clearly
  • Upset stomach
  • Impaired mental cognition

Trauma Affects Everyone Differently

Triggers stem from traumatic episodes where someone felt they were not in control of their life. Even though some people may have experienced such events but don’t outwardly display emotional responses to triggers, they may still be dealing with stress and anxiety. Some may have found healthy ways to deal with trauma, while others resorted to substances or a violent demeanor.


There should be no judgment or stigma against people openly talking about their trauma. There should also be no judgment against those who may have not yet confronted their past. Some are unaware of what trauma has done to them, but safe spaces created online, in support groups, and in rehabilitation centers can be the start of someone’s healing. Everyone is on their own timeline when it comes to dealing with trauma.

If You’re Triggered, Let Someone Know

Feeling triggered doesn’t have to alienate you from family and friends. If you experience extreme distress from something, the best way to handle it is to speak with a mental health professional.However, you can also refer to a trusted acquaintance, preferably someone who has experience confronting mental health issues.

Talking about your triggers, feelings, and fears can help you relieve yourself of stress and build a connection with others. If you are in a triggering situation, you do not have to stay in it to prove to yourself you’re “strong” or “unaffected.” Let others know what topics or actions may be triggering for you so they can accommodate you. If you feel someone is unresponsive to your request, find someone else to confide in. There are plenty of people who can relate to your trauma and feelings.