What Are Triggers?

This is an article of mine that was originally posted in Feministing’s community blog.

No matter what the media tries to tell us, sexual assault can be experienced in an infinite number of ways. However, there is one thing that nearly all survivors have in common: triggers. Everyone has probably seen trigger warnings at the tops of articles, but what exactly triggers are is not yet common knowledge. I’ll be honest: they’re complicated. Every person has different triggers. Every person responds differently. Even the same person many not respond the same way twice. In a world were sexual assault is depressingly common, it is important for everyone to be familiar with triggers.

What are triggers?
A trigger is anything that reminds a person of a past trauma. These are common in people who have PTSD, but even people without PTSD can have triggers. They can happen as a result of being in combat, experiencing or witnessing abuse, and much more. Here we will be focusing on survivors of sexual assault.

What causes them?
Triggers are often associated with the five senses. Examples include:

  • Sight: a person who looks like the perpetrator, seeing where the assault took place
  • Sound: sounds of pain or fear (screaming, whimpering, crying), a song that was playing when the assault happened
  • Touch/sensation: a friend puts their hand on the survivor’s shoulder which reminds the survivor of being pinned down by the shoulder
  • Smell: the smell of tobacco smoke because perpetrator was a smoker
  • Taste: the taste of whiskey because that’s what the survivor was drinking the night they were assaulted

Other examples:

  • Situations such as feeling pressured into doing something
  • An anniversary of the assault
  • The word “sweetie” because the perpetrator called the survivor sweetie
  • Nightmares related to the trauma
  • Reading articles about to sexual assault
  • A scene in a TV show or movie that depicts sexual assault
  • Certain emotions (extreme anxiety, feeling helpless)

What happens when someone is triggered?
People respond to triggers in many different ways. Reactions to a trigger fall under five categories: physical, emotional, mental and behavioral. Here are a few examples:

  • Physical reactions: hyperventilation, tense muscles, shaking, a faster heart rate, loss of appetite, fatigue, insomnia
  • Emotional reactions: fear, sadness, panic, numbness, unease, irritability
  • Mental reactions: flashbacks, negative thoughts, difficulty concentrating, feeling detached, inability to think clearly
  • Behavioral reactions: hypervigilance, lashing out verbally, covering their body with their arms as if to protect themself

Panic attacks and the fight/flight/freeze response are also very common.

The severity of one’s reaction depends on a few things: how much it reminds a person of their past trauma, how traumatic the event was that a person is reminded of and a person’s state of mind when they are triggered. If someone was feeling at ease, their reaction will be less intense than it would be if they were already anxious beforehand. A person’s reaction also may be more severe if the trigger came out of nowhere. These reactions can last from a few seconds to weeks. They can be immediate and severe, or creep up slowly. A survivor’s triggers can even evolve over time, becoming more or less of a problem. New triggers can pop up, and others can lessen in severity or even disappear entirely with time.

Triggers are difficult for a few reasons. First, people don’t always know all of their triggers. Some triggers make a lot of sense (for example, seeing someone who looks/sounds/acts just like the perpetrator) and others are more abstract. Survivors often try to avoid their triggers, but that’s not always possible, both because of unknown triggers and ones that have no warning (example: a song playing on the radio). Second, sometimes we’re not even aware of our triggers. Sometimes they creep up on us and it takes a while to notice that we’re (for example) anxious without understanding why. Finally, they’re out of our control. It’s a knee jerk reaction and leaves us feeling like we’re reliving the trauma. However, it is possible to overcome a trigger and cope with them. My next article will focus on the latter.

More resources about triggers:
Not Sure What People Mean By ‘Triggering?’ This Article Is Your One-Stop 101
What is a trigger?
Getting triggered?

Related content:

Thank you for reading this article. You can find my backstory here.

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