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Understanding Trauma and Triggers

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Understanding Trauma and Triggers

Will Bratt


The word “trigger” gets tossed around like confetti these days, which can make its meaning unclear. In this video, I clarify what the term “trigger” means when it comes to trauma, and also acknowledge some of its shortcomings and useful alternatives. Keep watching to learn what you need to know about trauma and triggers!

Hi folks, I’m Will Bratt from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives. We’re therapists who do regular videos on mental wellness, and give practical ideas and tips to make your life happier and more fulfilling – so hit the subscribe button to keep in the loop!

The word “trigger” or “triggered” gets used a lot now-a-days, from basic conversations we have, to blog posts and articles online, to news broadcasts by major media networks. One thing I’ve noticed is that people use the word “trigger” to refer to a pretty wide range of different types of experiences. For this reason, I wanted to set the record straight and clarify what it means when people talk about triggers in the context of trauma.

Make sure you watch until the end because I also illustrate some shortcomings of the concept of triggers and provide some useful alternatives for making sense of responses to traumatic experiences.

The first thing I want to make crystal clear is that when people in the trauma field say “trigger”, they basically mean present-day things that remind us of past traumatic experiences, as well as the strong emotional responses that go along with those memories.

Like all memories, we associate specific contextual factors with traumatic events. These are aspects of our experiences that relate to our five senses – the sounds, smells, sights, feelings, and tastes that were present at the time of the traumatic experience.

Just as these factors can remind us of positive past experiences, they can also remind us of the worst experiences we’ve endured. In trauma literature, these reminders are what tend to be referred to as “triggers”.

Now, if you’re anything like a lot of people, psychological language and theoretical ideas can feel really unwieldy or hard to wrap our heads around. One downside to jargon like “triggers” is that it can set people up to feel dependent on professionals to decode and make sense of their experience, because it’s different from how most people talk about their experiences and responses to things that happen in their lives.

I like to talk about “triggers” using more accessible language that doesn’t require a visit to Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary. One way I do this is by thinking and talking about “triggers” in terms of “sensitivity”

If you’ve ever gone through something traumatic, you probably found that things weren’t the same afterward. One thing that’s often different is that we learn what to be watchful and wary of so that we can do our best to keep something similar from happening again in the future. A really simple way of putting it is that we become sensitive to things that remind us of the traumatic experience as a way of keeping ourselves as safe as possible.

So when someone says “That song is a trigger for me because it reminds me of my abusive ex”, or “I’m triggered by people who withdraw when they’re angry because that’s what my mom did growing up”, they usually mean they’re sensitive to those things - and for good reason! Through negative experiences, we learn what to watch out for so the same thing doesn’t happen again.

It’s absolutely valid, reasonable, and appropriate to be sensitive to places, people, or things that relate to your traumatic experiences, because your sense of safety is important. 

Now, I know that sensitivity can be framed as a negative trait for someone to have. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “She’s too sensitive”, or even, “He takes things too seriously” or “They don’t know how to take a joke”. The perspectives that statements like these come from miss the mark in a big way because they assume people shouldn’t have strong responses to traumatic experiences, and that they shouldn’t be sensitive to things related to their trauma. That’s just unrealistic and ignorant.

Here are a few reasons why post-traumatic sensitivity is totally valid, appropriate, and healthy:

1.    It shows you learn from your experience. When someone has experienced trauma, especially violence and abuse, they learn a hard truth: the world is not entirely safe. This hard lesson can be especially loud if we receive negative responses from our communities and support networks while the trauma is happening, or in the aftermath. This isn’t to say that the world is an inherently dangerous place either – there are people who make efforts to do both good and bad – but trauma awakens us to the reality that safety is something we need to create or work at establishing, and it cannot be taken for granted. Our post-traumatic sensitivities almost always serve that purpose.

2.    It honours our grief. Many of the people I talk to in therapy confirm that their responses to their traumatic experiences are akin to grief. This is supported by popular literature in the trauma field. When we lose someone close to us, it’s understandable to respond to things that remind us of them with sorrow or despair. The same can be said about trauma. When we’re reminded of a traumatic experience, it’s fair to respond with strong emotions that are akin to grief. Even though the trauma may not be a loss in the typical sense, it still gives us something to grieve.

3.    It highlights the purpose of our emotions. Just as the word “sensitive” can carry negative connotations, so too can the word “emotional”. When we experience something as awful as trauma, it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect to have the same level of emotionality after the event as we did before it happened. It’s popular to assume that it’s “right” to feel even-keeled and neutral about things, in spite of the fact that something profoundly negative has happened. Emotionality and sensitivity in the wake of traumatic experiences tell us that we have a pulse and are tuned in the reality of our experiences.

You might notice that all 3 of these reasons basically boil down to meaning. I like to say, “The bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling”, and for as awful as traumatic experiences are, they’re also profoundly meaningful. This partially explains why we feel so sensitive to things that remind us of our trauma.

Shortcomings of “Trigger” Language

As I said at the beginning of this video, I also wanted to share my perspective on what I believe to be shortcomings of the language of “triggers”.

1.    First, it’s ambiguous. If someone says they felt “triggered”, it tells us little about the specific details of their experience in those moments, leaving us with a vague account that can be interpreted a number of potentially inaccurate ways.

2.    Secondly, as a metaphor that reduces people to the status of machines. “Sadness”, “anger”, and “afraid” are all descriptive words that tell us about specific emotional experiences. The word “trigger”, on the other hand, is a mechanistic metaphor that doesn’t account for the dynamic responsiveness of living beings. The word “triggered” positions us only as being acted upon or effected by traumatic experiences. It totally ignores the ways we actively respond to and resist adversity in our lives. In therapy, this results in incomplete stories, which limits therapeutic potential.

3.    Third, the term “trigger” has an inherent negative bias. It implies that when things that remind us of past trauma are present, they act upon us in negative ways, without regard or consideration for the breadth and nuances of our responses.  But if negative factors “trigger” us to have negative feelings, shouldn’t the same be true of positive factors as well? The reality is, it would sound odd and out of place if you described yourself as “triggered” when you had positive emotional responses to a kitten curling up on your lap, or your partner making you a wonderful meal, or your employer giving you a bonus in recognition of the good work you’ve done. My point is, the “trigger” discourse is a one-way street that assumes that we’re passively acted upon by negative experiences, but not positive ones. Logically speaking, it can’t be one way and not the other.

Useful Alternatives to “Triggers”

Because of the ambiguous, deterministic nature of the concept of “triggers”, having other language to account for our responses to traumatic content can be really useful.

Here are 2 really simple ways of describing your responses in ways other than “triggered”:

First, use emotional language. Instead of the more ambiguous catch-all statement, “I felt really triggered”, simple emotional statements like “I felt really angry/afraid/hurt/upset” can say a whole lot more, in more direct and descriptive terms.

And secondly, acknowledge your sensitivity. “Trigger” language positions you as being passively acted upon by your experience. On the other hand, when you acknowledge feeling sensitive about something, you acknowledge your agency in relationship to it. You’re responding to the thing, not having it act upon you. Even though sensitivity goes hand-in-hand with vulnerability, you’re in a far more active and empowered position.

When it comes to dealing with trauma, the most important thing is healing. While “trigger” language offers a way to understand the relationship between aspects of our traumatic experiences and our present-day responses, it falls short in its ambiguity and cause-effect assumptions.

With all that said, it’s really important to know that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in the wake of traumatic experiences make sense and are valid, regardless of the words you use to describe them.

Understanding how and why we experience newfound sensitivities after going through traumatic events can help us navigate those situations and create a greater sense of safety for ourselves as we adjust to the world with new eyes.

So, turning it over to you, the Heart & Oak community, what do you think are some useful advantages or downsides to the “trigger” analogy that didn’t get mentioned? Are there other ways of making sense of post-traumatic sensitivities that you find helpful? Make sure to let us know in the comment section!

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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life!