What Is a Trigger?

It’s easy to feel confused by the word “trigger,” especially for survivors of child sexual abuse. In recent years, “trigger” has become synonymous with being overly sensitive, overly demanding, or unable to take a joke. People may also refer to “being triggered” when expressing their dislike or distaste for something, or when expressing general annoyance or frustration. None of these uses of the word “trigger” are true or accurate.

So what is a trigger? And how do you know if it’s something you experience?

In short, a trigger is an instance when you become physically and/or emotionally reactive to something that relates to the trauma you have experienced. These symptoms and feelings are part of your brain’s natural response to unsafe experiences from the past.1,2,5

What Causes a Trigger?

Triggers can be difficult to predict. This is because your brain may connect even the smallest and seemingly harmless of details to a past trauma. For instance, you may experience a trigger because your brain is responding to a certain sight, sound, or smell that it associates with something you experienced in the past. Even certain words, colors, or shapes can trigger a panicked response from the brain if the association is distinct enough.

Whatever the sources may be, and however frequent or infrequent an individual’s triggers are, these physical and emotional reactions are not in any way a reflection of one’s weakness or sensitivity. Rather, triggers are indications of how your brain is processing the information around you based on past experiences.

What Does a Trigger Feel Like?

While it’s true that everyone experiences triggers differently, a key commonality is that triggers generally produce some sort of uncomfortable physical and/or emotional response.

Physical responses to a trigger
might include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Difficulty breathing and/or hyperventilating
  • Tunnel vision or an inability to focus
  • Flashbacks

Emotional responses to a trigger
might include feelings of:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Fear or mistrust
  • Irritability, or a desire to lash out at others
  • Numbness, or a feeling of shutting down
  • Loneliness, detachment, or a desire to isolate yourself
  • Confusion
  • Note: You may notice that some of these physical responses are very similar to what you may experience during a panic attack. Keep in mind that while triggers can lead to a panic attack, that is not always the case. Also, not all panic attacks are caused by triggers. For more information, visit our “Panic Attacks” resource.

How Is a Trigger Connected to Child Sexual Abuse?

Experiencing triggers is one of the signs and symptoms common among survivors of child sexual abuse. This is because the trauma occurred during childhood or adolescence when the brain was still developing. Such trauma may have included frightening or premature sexual experiences, feelings of powerlessness, betrayal, stigma, and chronic childhood stress.

Whatever the stressors may have been, they significantly impacted the survivor’s brain—particularly the limbic system. The limbic system is the automatic, subconscious system of the brain that monitors the information around us and processes that information using past experiences as a basis. Our automatic responses, like jumping back when we see a large spider or slamming on the breaks when a car in front of us does the same, are ignited by our limbic system trying to protect us from perceived danger.

So when a child or teen is sexually abused, their limbic system not only jumps into high alert but can remain in that state of heightened alertness, even after the threat is no longer present. This means the limbic system remains continually vigilant for any signs of danger so it can instigate the flight, fright, or freeze response if necessary.

In this state of hypervigilance, the limbic system will become extra sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, or feelings that can be connected in any way to the sexual abuse. And when it does detect such reminders, the limbic system will sound off an alarm bell to warn the individual against danger. This alarm bell is a trigger.2

Ultimately, the trauma of childhood sexual abuse can push the limbic system to a continual state of hyperarousal, which can lead to symptoms like experiencing triggers that are difficult to predict and even more difficult to pacify.

So, Are Triggers Normal?

How your limbic system reacts to triggers does not define who you are. Remember, these responses are your brain’s way of trying to protect you when it perceives danger. The limbic system is continuing to do what it originally learned to do at the time your trauma began. It is setting off these alarm bells to keep you safe, not knowing that such alarm bells are no longer needed. Your ability to “control” or “stop” these alarm bells does not put a limit on your healing or growth.

How to Cope with Triggers

As overwhelming as these triggers may feel, there are tools to help you manage the disruptions they cause within your day-to-day life.

Many of these tools provide ways for you to remind your limbic system that the danger it’s perceiving and responding to is not here and now but in the past, and that you are safe in the present. Giving yourself these kinds of reminders is a form of practicing Mindfulness, one of our three healing practices. Also, learning more about how trauma impacts your brain can help you understand why you have symptoms such as triggers and the steps you can take toward healing.4

Resources to Help Manage Triggers

Below are three recommendations from our resource library. Each of these recommendations are tools that might be effective in helping you manage the triggers you are currently experiencing.

Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques are tools you can use to help guide your attention back to the present when you begin to feel stuck in a state of fear, anxiety, or helplessness. This “redirection” is especially helpful with triggers as you remind your limbic system that you are connected to the present and not trapped in the past.

learn more

Paced Breathing

Without the full range of our breath, a trigger can cause a panic that seems even more overwhelming. When we take steady, deep breaths, we are more able to reconnect with the present and clear our thoughts. This paced breathing exercise can help you practice bringing your heart rate down and calming the fear or anxiety you may experience when a trigger does arise.

learn more

Creating a Back-up Plan

As triggers can sometimes feel overwhelming and isolating, having a back-up plan on you at all times will help remind you of what next steps to take and who you can contact for additional support. This resource will help you brainstorm a back-up plan that will be most effective to your needs and situation.

learn more
1. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. TIP Series—Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57. (2014) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SMA14-4816.
2. Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: mind, brain, and body in the transformation of trauma. London: Penguin Books.
3. Kroff, Ben, LAMFT. (December 2019). “B.L.A.S.T.—Five Feelings That Impair Lower Resolve.” The EFT Clinic for Couples and Families. Retrieved from https://theeftclinic.com/eftblog/blast
4. Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
5. Winfrey, O., & Perry, B. D. (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books.