What is the act of being “triggered?” People commonly misuse the word triggered today. Whether it’s being used to convey mild discontent or mild discomfort, or to mock others whom people perceive as overly or highly sensitive, the word’s true meaning seems to have been lost or forgotten.

In the world of psychology, being triggered means a person is experiencing a strong, negative emotional response to something which has activated their sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn), and often hinders their ability to remain present in the moment. Negative thoughts and unpleasant physiological symptoms often accompany this response. In other words, being triggered can be quite debilitating for many people. Some possible examples of situations that people might find triggering include:

1. An adult who may have felt abandoned at some point in their childhood may feel triggered, or activated, by the lack of response or engagement of others now, such as not receiving a response to their text, a partner requesting some space after an argument, or a decrease in interactions with a friend who has moved further away.

2. The smell of a cologne in a room that reminds a woman of her last boyfriend who abused her may trigger the woman to panic and become hypervigilant.

3. A young man who was constantly bullied for his weight throughout high school might feel activated when his coworkers tease him about eating salads for lunch, leading to emotions of rejection and low self-worth.

4. An older woman who lost her son to gun violence may feel activated news and social media posting of shootings, causing her to relive the pain and loss again.

5. A spouse whose partner had an affair may find certain things triggering, such as their partner running late, their own wedding anniversary, or driving past the location where their partner met the other person.

Not all triggers make sense to us or to the people around us. Sometimes we’re not even aware of the connection between the current triggering stimuli and the original cause for the problem. Not all links are linear, either. Sometimes we have to do some deep digging to find that link, that way our creative brain decided the triggering stimuli was “close enough” to represent something else.

So, what can you do if you feel activated? Are there ways you can regain control of your thoughts, emotions, and physical symptoms? Absolutely! Here are a few key steps people can take when they feel activated:

1. Deep breathing: get that heart rate down, shift from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), kick your prefrontal cortex into gear, and remind yourself you have control over your body.

2. Check your surroundings: are you in an unsafe environment in which you need to leave, or is it that your body and emotions are responding as though you are when you actually aren’t?

3. Ground yourself: engage your senses, check in with those physical reactions, and do something that is calming and provides you with a sense of security and safety.

At this point, you may be asking yourself what need you would have for a therapist if you can use the techniques mentioned above. To answer this, I’ll use the analogy I often share with my own clients. Coping skills are like the dressing on a wound. It helps with the healing process, and it can protect the wound to a certain degree, and yet we must ask what is the actual wound? How did we get it? Why do some things (triggers) seem to get through the dressing and reopen the wound while some do not? How do we make certain we dress the wound properly? Therapy can provide these answers.

How do we make certain we dress the wound properly? While there are thousands and thousands of different ways to implement various coping skills, each individual will find they respond to these differently (finding some beneficial and others not so much), and they may require different skills for different scenarios (what works in a private setting, like taking a warm shower, might not work in a public setting). Therapists collaborate with clients to tailor coping skills to fit their client’s specific needs.

What if you’re going about your day as usual and suddenly feel uneasy and hypervigilant, with no clue as to why? Figuring out specific triggers can be tricky, especially those that aren’t obvious to us or that have a hidden connection to our wound that we aren’t yet aware of. Therapists can work with clients to begin recognizing triggers, learning to avoid them or tolerate them, and finding their links to our past experiences. Additionally, therapists can help clients uncover the origin of their wound, as well as the negative thought cycles and core beliefs born from these. In doing so, a process of healing the wound can begin.

Therapists incorporate learning, practicing, and using skills and techniques involving distress tolerance, emotional regulation, mindfulness, grounding, cognitive reframing, changing behavioral responses, increasing self-awareness, and more, in order to help clients build their own toolboxes. By developing healthy coping skills, working to heal emotional wounds, and learning to identify and manage triggers, people can slowly begin to feel less triggered in life.



Ankrom, S. (2024, February 16). Need a breather? Try these 9 breathing exercises to relieve anxiety quickly. Verywell Mind.,for%20up%20to%2010%20minutes.

Cuncic, A. (2023, January 23). Chill out: How to use progressive muscle relaxation to quell anxiety. Verywell Mind.

Stand4Kind. (2020, March 26). Coping skill: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding technique. YouTube.