What is a Trigger? Hint: It's not just Roy Roger's Horse.

I had to Google if Trigger was the Lone Ranger's horse.  The Lone Ranger rode Silver.  Roy Rogers rode Trigger.  Now you know.  

Print purchased and then photographed by me.

Print purchased and then photographed by me.

If you are too young to know who Roy Rogers is Google "Roy Rogers Happy Trails" and watch the You Tube Video.  You're Welcome.   When Trigger the horse died they stuffed him (creepy) and put him in a museum.

The type of triggers I am concerned with are not horses, they are emotional triggers.  You may or may not be familiar with triggers, but let's get some common language and understanding so you'll know what I mean when I tell you about triggers. 

We throw the word “trigger” around all the time in our lingo so we end up thinking we know what it means…but let’s double check.  So what do I mean when I say “trigger”?  Well, a “trigger” in psych lingo is when someone, something, or an event sparks in us into an automatic, usually negative, reaction that’s extreme for the context of the situation.

Made with Wordle

Made with Wordle

A trigger can set off a memory tape or flashback (we’ll cover flashbacks in another post) or it can make you scared.  Or it can leave you feeling discombobulated and crazy.  Or it can make you isolate or cry or “flip out” or any number of other behaviors that take you negatively away from your “normal”

Triggers are very individual; different things trigger different people. A person's triggers are usually activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touches, smell and taste.


  • Someone who resembles the abuser or who has similar traits or objects (i.e. clothing, hair color, or distinctive walk).
  • Any situation where someone else is being abused (i.e. anything from a raised eyebrow and verbal comment to actual physical abuse).
  • An object that was used to abuse
  • Objects that are associated with or were common in the place where the abuse took place (i.e. alcohol, piece of furniture, time of year).
  • Any place or situation similar to where the abuse took place (i.e. specific locations in a house, holidays, family events, social settings).


  • Anything that sounds like anger or danger (i.e. raised voices, arguments, bangs and thumps, something breaking).
  • Anything that sounds like pain or fear (i.e. crying, whispering, screaming).
  • Anything that might have been in the place or situation prior to, during, or after the abuse or sounds like a reminder of the abuse (i.e. sirens, foghorns, music, cricket, chirping, car door closing).
  • Anything that resembles sounds that the abuser made (i.e. whistling, footsteps, pop of can opening, tone of voice).
  • Words of abuse (i.e. cursing, labels, put-downs, specific words used).


  • Anything that resembles the smell of the abuser (i.e. tobacco, alcohol, drugs, after-shave, perfume).
  • Any smells that resemble the place or situation where the abuse occurred (i.e. food cooking, wood, odors, alcohol).


  • Anything that resembles the abuse or things that occurred prior to, during, or after the abuse (i.e. certain physical touch, someone standing too close, petting an animal, the way someone approaches you).


  • Anything that is related to the abuse, prior to the abuse, during, or after the abuse (i.e. certain foods, alcohol, tobacco).

I have triggers in all five senses.  Super non-awesome!  Some I am aware of and some I am still discovering. 

Unfortunately, much of the time we’re COMPLETELY unaware of our triggers.  But if we find them, we can get proactive about discovering ways to mitigate them.

From Free Stock Images

From Free Stock Images

How do you know when you've been triggered?  That’s fairly easy to determine in hindsight and much more difficult to nail down in the moment.  All you know is that you were going along just fine, and then, all of a sudden, you’re feeling intensely anxious, or angry, or both.  If you feel in hindsight like you may have overreacted or if afterward you feel like a schmuck. Well guess what, you've been triggered, buddy.

The first step is to know what your triggers are. If you can name it, you can tame it, as the common wisdom goes.  How do you find out what your triggers are?  I suggest you spend time examining the times when you know you've been triggered, and then tracing your steps back to see if you can discover your trigger.  In my Rape, Sexual Assault, and PTSD Mentoring Class (the link to find out more is HERE) we break down your triggers one by one, look at them objectively, and give you specific and real coping/mitigation strategies to deal with each one. 

I’m sure this has been said somewhere before, but I can’t find the source, and I find it to be a really helpful analogy.

Being triggered is like having an allergic reaction.

Image from Free Medical Images

Image from Free Medical Images

A good description of an allergic reaction (speaking as someone who has a child with food allergies) is an involuntary reaction to a substance which can vary from mild discomfort to serious debilitation where you need emergency help. Change ‘a substance’ to 'trigger’ and that’s pretty much a description of what goes on. The reaction is psychological rather than physical (although it can, of course, have physical symptoms), but it is just as serious and just as involuntary.

Do you tell someone with a food allergy to 'just deal’ with an exposure to the allergen?  Do you say they’re overreacting when they are allergic?  Do you tell them they are being silly and to get over it?  Do you say that they should just avoid all public food if they’re going to complain about being allergic to some of it?

No. You empower them by teaching them what they are allergic to, teaching them to avoid it eating it, and teaching them to read food labels so they can see identify ingredients they are allergic to.  Then you ensure they have an epi-pen and access to 911 when things get really bad.  PTSD triggers are the same.  You learn what triggers you, learn to avoid it, learn to identify it, learn the PTSD version of an epi-pen to stop it in its tracks, and have an emergency plan for when the crap hits the proverbial fan.  I can teach you how to do all that.

Sometimes people with allergies can reduce their reactions with exposure and with a series of shots. Animal allergies are a type that can sometimes be treated this way.  Likewise, it’s true that gradual exposure in a safe environment is one way to minimize PTSD symptoms.  That doesn't mean it’s okay to drop a cat in the lap of someone who is allergic to them and say 'exposure will cure you!’  That’s not the right way.  I can help you with gentle exposure to triggers to mute them and make them more manageable.

Photo purchased from 123RF

Photo purchased from 123RF

But it's not the "triggers" that are evil, it's the sexual assault. And you’re going to get triggered if you live in the real world. It would be nice to never have to feel anything connected to my rape again, but that's not how it works unfortunately. That bell can't be unrung.

Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

Learn your triggers.  Learn to mute them and your plan for when they come.  Because come they will.  This is a process you can do on your own or I can help you.  I have triggers I’ll never get over.  I will never be able to watch HBO’s hit fantasy series Game of Thrones.  It’s too rape-y and I’ll never get there.  But armed with the knowledge of what my triggers are and what to proactively do when they pop up their ugly heads, my life is a whole lot more pleasant than when I lived reactively.