Originally published on The Body is Not an Apology and republished here with their permission.
Content Warning: This article discusses triggering in detail and mentions common topics of triggering (sexual assault, anxiety, health anxiety, depression, death, non-specific fears and phobias).
I have been susceptible to triggering for about two-and-a-half years.
I developed health anxiety, and whenever I’m exposed to things relating to death and certain illnesses, I suddenly and quite dramatically feel all-encompassing panic spread through my entire body.
Sometimes, it goes away in seconds; at other times, it lingers for weeks, making it difficult to function normally until my mind reaches equilibrium again.
One thing I have noticed since becoming susceptible to triggering is that not many people understand how it works.
This is understandable – triggering is something that’s difficult to comprehend unless you’ve experienced it yourself. However, I find this lack of understanding problematic for two reasons:
1. It causes unfair judgment toward people who get triggered – with thoughts along the lines of “You can’t get triggered; nothing terrible has happened to you” or “Why would something like that trigger you?” being common.
2. Even when triggering is met with sympathetic ears, often the owners of said ears don’t know how to help.
This article is my attempt to explain the basics of triggering.
While this information is far from exhaustive, I hope it will help to shed a little light on how triggering works and what can be done about it.
What Is Triggering?
Triggering occurs when any certain something (a “trigger”) causes a negative emotional response.
The emotional response can be fear, sadness, panic, flashbacks, and pain, as well as any physical symptoms associated with these emotions (shaking, loss of appetite, fainting, fatigue, and so on).
Triggering can vary in severity, and the most harmful triggering tends to happen when the trigger has been encountered without any prior warning.
What Causes Susceptibility to Triggering?
A lot of the time, susceptibility to triggering occurs as a result of a traumatic event; the person is triggered by anything that reminds them of that event.
Sometimes it happens when somebody else (a friend, relative, or celebrity) goes through a traumatic event, and that creates a fear that something similar might happen.
Sometimes, it happens through fears and phobias unrelated to trauma.
And sometimes, it happens for no reason at all.
Regardless of how somebody has become susceptible, being triggered can be just as severe and horrible for anyone.
What Sorts of Things Can Be Triggers?
Anything. Absolutely anything.
In the most straightforward of cases, triggers are anything the person can sense that reminds them of the cause of the triggering.
For instance, if a person is sensitive about sexual assault, they might be triggered by seeing somebody who reminds them of an attacker, or by being touched in a certain way, or by seeing news articles that mention sexual assault.
However, due to the completely illogical way in which the mind works sometimes, triggers are often more convoluted than that.
To give a personal example, I am often triggered when I see books by Terry Pratchett. I have been told that his books are fantastic, but I cannot bring myself to read any of them because Pratchett now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
I have mentioned this particular trigger to friends and family before and have been met with surprise, disbelief, and remarks on how silly I’m being.
As you might imagine, such remarks are not helpful.
How Can I Help?
You can help in two general ways: by reducing the risk of triggering, and by aiding recovery when somebody has been triggered.
Here are some things you can do to reduce the risk of triggering:
1. Learn What the Person’s Triggers Are
Some people will be able to give very accurate and precise information.
The more accurate the information, the better equipped you will be to warn them about potential triggers, help with avoiding them, and ensure that you do not carelessly trigger them yourself.
Other people may not know exactly what triggers them, but even vague information will be more helpful than no information at all.
2. Be a ‘Tester’
As far as I’ve seen, many preventable instances of triggering happen when somebody is exposed to media like books or movies.
If somebody susceptible to triggering expresses interest in reading a book or watching a movie that either you or they think might be triggering, you can offer to read/watch it beforehand and talk to them about whether it would be safe for them to read/watch.
3. Look Things Up in Advance
You can research different media beforehand to see whether there are any potential triggers.
Checking the plot on Wikipedia is often helpful.
Sometimes, unfortunately, triggering is unavoidable.
If somebody has been triggered, here are a few things you can do to help them recover:
1. Let Them Know That They Can Contact You
This is a simple gesture and a very important one.
When I have been triggered, there is nothing I find more helpful than talking through my panic with my father, mother, or best friend. All three of these people have made it clear that I can call them whenever I need to.
Knowing I have that lifeline available is extremely reassuring.
Make sure that your loved one understands that they can contact you whenever they need your help.
2. Be Physically Close to Them
Close contact can be very comforting when somebody has been triggered, as it is a reminder that you are there for them.
Depending on how okay the person is with being touched, hugging them, holding their hand, letting them cry on your shoulder, or simply sitting next to them can help.
3. Distract and/or Comfort Them
Sometimes talking things through is helpful, but at other times, it is more helpful to try and take the triggered person’s mind off what has triggered them.
This can require a bit of a judgment call, but don’t be afraid to ask the person whether they would rather talk about it or do something to take their mind off it.
If the person being triggered is experienced in the art of distraction and comforting, they will probably have a collection of distraction/comforting tools, such as comedy movies, crossword puzzles, fun fan fiction, hot beverage equipment, duvets, and cuddly toys (not that I have all of these constantly at the ready, or anything).
They can draw from them when the need arises, and you can stay and enjoy their distraction along with them. Alternatively, suggest your own activity.
4. Don’t Be Judgmental
Because of the weird ways in which triggering can work, it’s easy to listen to somebody explaining how they have been triggered and find it silly or stupid.
Dismissing the trigger is just about the worst thing you can do.
Not only is it unhelpful, but it can also make them feel guilty and/or pathetic when they are already emotionally vulnerable.
If you want to help somebody who has been triggered, set those judgments aside and understand that, regardless of what has triggered them, they are suffering and need your help.
5. Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Make a Mistake
I remember that once, my dad bought me a beautiful framed painting from a shop in France, inspired by my having previously seen similar paintings and saying I liked them.
Unfortunately, this particular painting had gravestones on it, which triggered me.
I told Dad this, and he said something along the lines of “I’m so, so sorry.”
I felt like the worst daughter ever for making my father feel bad when he had done something so nice for me.
If you ever find that you have caused triggering-related grief, please don’t beat yourself up over it. These incidents happen sometimes, and they cannot always be avoided.
I would instead suggest finding out whether there is anything you can do to help the person feel better, as that would be a far more productive use of both your time and theirs.
While many people experience triggering in similar ways, it is important to bear in mind that no two people are the same.
It cannot therefore be assumed that what will help one person will necessarily help everyone.
As such, the best thing you can do to help somebody who struggles with triggering is to learn about their particular situation as best you can, and then give them whatever love and support you are able to give.
Gillian Brown is a writer for The Body is Not an Apology. You can check out their articles here.