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Understanding Triggers

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

What comes to mind when you hear someone say they're "triggered"? The term has evolved to refer to almost any emotional upset. Sometimes it's used to dismiss how someone feels when they're impacted by another's words or behavior.

But being triggered is far more significant than simply finding someone's comments or behavior offensive. It's something very real that happens, and we're often not sure why.

Out of Context

There was nothing wrong with the church or the service. Everything was bright and welcoming, the people were friendly. But Patti couldn't get comfortable.

As the seats around her filled up with people, her breathing got shallower, she wrung her hands. The music started, upbeat and easy, but it was the last straw. The feeling of background anxiety swelled into full alarm bells. She gathered up her things and left the sanctuary at almost a jog.

Loveland counselor therapist triggers anxiety trauma

Out in her car, she opened the glove box and with trembling hands dug out the packet of cigarettes waiting there for her. You're such a hot mess, she thought bitterly as she flicked the lighter. Maybe next year.


When Greg and Diane finally managed to make date night happen, they decided on a new restaurant that had just opened up nearby. As they walked in, Greg immediately noticed how nicely everyone was dressed.

"Do you have a reservation?" the hostess asked politely. When Greg said no, the apologetic smile she gave them cut him to the bone. Diane led the way out, content to try whatever else was available, but Greg felt utterly exposed and humiliated. For the rest of the night he completely shut down, leaving Diane alone and frustrated.

Trauma can hit all at once like a tsunami, or it can erode the shore with years of constant, relentless waves.

Significant Storylines

Each of us is a walking story in progress, and the narrative is recorded mentally, emotionally, and physically. The behavior of the people in the two scenes above might not make a lot of sense to most people. The situations seem fairly harmless, right?

When we say "trauma", the scenarios that usually come to mind are dramatic and catastrophic; a violent car crash, sexual abuse, military combat. These certainly qualify. But the impact acute emotional traumas are not to be underestimated. An intense experience of abandonment or humiliation can be recorded in the body the same way, initiating the same response when triggered later. That's what happened to Greg.

The intensity of the event isn't even the most important factor in trauma--what affects us is the story we tell ourselves about it. As we try to make sense of events and our emotions, we develop beliefs about ourselves and our world that reshape how we experience life. I'm alone. No one can love me. People want to hurt me. I never want to be touched again. Trauma changes the story we're living for the worse.

Trauma also doesn't have to be a singular, acute event. Sometimes it is a slow progression, like growing up in a household of extreme poverty or emotional chaos. The long, repeated pattern of enduring and staying prepared for hurtful experiences leaves a mark.

Trauma can hit all at once like a tsunami, or it can erode the shore with years of constant, relentless waves.

Wired for Survival

For a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a "trigger" is any stimuli that throws them into the same hyper-aroused state caused by the original trauma. It activates physiological & psychological survival mechanisms as if the danger were still present. The past invades the present in both mind and body.

The trigger may seem like nothing in comparison to the original trauma, but that doesn't matter. To the sufferer, it seems to be telling the trauma's story over again. It resonates with the same frequency, and their autonomic systems cannot tell that they are not in the same situation.

This can make a former soldier at a fireworks show feel like they're on a deadly battlefield, and it can cause a grown adult to experience their spouse like the bullying, overpowering parent who once controlled them.

These places remain tender and even trigger-able for some time. It's important to allow for that, to seek out appropriate places to process and heal. Counseling can address our emotional and thought process, and powerful therapies like EMDR can even help our autonomic systems readjust.

Having trauma is not an excuse to act destructively when something touches our suffering. But as we learn what it means to hold our stories authentically, even though we may still get triggered sometimes, we'll be able to respond instead of react, to care instead of cope, and to make choices not out of hurt, but from our heart.


Mike Ensley, MA, LPC, is a nationally certified and EMDR-trained counselor in Loveland, CO.

Photo by Israel Palacio.


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