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What are Behavioral Triggers and Why Do They Matter?

Coping Skills

We hear a lot about behavioral triggers these days but what are these triggers? How do they affect individuals? How should they react to them? and What can they do about them? These are questions that help to understand what emotional triggers are. I explore these issues in this blog.

Understanding Triggers

The term "triggered" refers to the experience of having an emotional reaction to a disturbing topic (such as violence or the mention of suicide) in the media or a social setting. However, there is a difference between being triggered and being uncomfortable.

A behavioral trigger or stressor is any stimulus that impacts our behavior. They are an action or situation that can lead to an adverse emotional reaction. Triggers are individualized experiences that vary widely from person-to-person. A trigger can impair judgment and some people may lack insight about their reactions.

A trigger, sometimes referred to as a stressor, is an action or situation that can lead to an adverse emotional reaction. In the context of mental illness, referring to triggers usually means something that has brought on or worsened symptoms.

In writing about understanding emotional triggers, Katherine Ponte points out that we tend to focus on what happens after a person has been triggered, which is when the situation is much harder to address. Understanding, identifying and working to prevent triggers can be more empowering and effective. According to Dr. Ponte, “many different stimuli can be possible triggers, and they are often strongly influenced by past experiences.”

Types of Triggering Events

Internal Triggers

An internal trigger comes from within the person. It can be a memory, a physical sensation, or an emotion, such as an emotional response to an abusive partner.

Other common internal triggers include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, abandoned, or out of control
  • Loneliness
  • Muscle tension
  • Memories tied to a traumatic event
  • Pain
  • Sadness Processing-emotions

External Triggers

External triggers come from the person's environment. They can be a person, place, or a specific situation. What may be a normal, everyday situation or minor inconvenience for some may be triggering to someone living with mental illness.

For example, a person living with trauma may be triggered by:

  • A movie, television show, or news article that reminds them of the experience
  • A person connected to the experience
  • Arguing with a friend, spouse, or partner
  • A specific time of day
  • Certain sounds that remind them of the experience
  • Changes to relationships or ending a relationship
  • Significant dates such as holidays or anniversaries
  • Going to a specific location that reminds them of the experience
  • Smells associated with the experience, such as smoke

Steps to Counteract Triggering Events

Psych Central notes that there are a variety of things a triggered person can do to counteract the effects of a triggering event including:

  • Try to have perspective.As soon as you feel triggered, try to take a birds-eye view of the situation. Recognize where these intense feelings are coming from — likely not from the trigger itself, but from a previous traumatic experience.
  • Remind yourself that you are safe. Next, try taking slow deep breaths and remind yourself that you’re safe now. You can repeat a mantra in your head if that’s helpful for you. You might remind yourself, “I am safe. This is not then.”
  • Practice self-compassion and acceptance. As much as you can, try not to get irritated with yourself for having these feelings. Direct compassion toward yourself as you would a close loved one.
  • Try meditating. Practicing meditation may also be a helpful tool to help reduce your anxiety. A 2013 research review involving 207 studies found that mindfulness meditation is an effective way to lower anxiety, depression, and stress. There are even trauma-informed mindfulness practices you can try.

How to Cope with Triggers

Arlin Cencic, writing for Very Well Mind, identifies other responses to triggering events. These tend to be more proactive and can lessen the severity of an emotional response to a triggering event that is harmful to the health of the triggered individual. Her suggestions are:

  • Practice relaxation techniques
  • Become aware of your triggers
  • Anticipate and plan a coping strategy for triggers
  • Call someone if you’re feeling triggered
  • Keep a journal
  • Exercise regularly


It is safe to say that emotional responses to triggering events can damage the health of the triggered individual. In fact, they may initiate a fight or flight response. The suggestions in this blog will help fighting off the negative effects of triggering events. They do entail some thought and changes in behavior to better deal with triggers. It is much healthier to fight off the urges that may be triggered to avoid mental health problems. Fleeing from these events only delays the need to fight back. We have so many triggers in life these days, in part due to the use of social media to trigger others, that unless we learn how to effectively deal with them, we may be haunted by them for a long time to come.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on September 13, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website  (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.