Most of us are all too familiar with the physical feelings that accompany stressful or frightening situations — a racing heart, trouble breathing and an upset stomach are just a few examples. But we don’t have to actually be in the thick of one of these situations to experience physical symptoms. Being confronted with a trigger can be enough to set off a physical reaction.
What is a trigger?
First things first: What exactly is a trigger?
Dr. Michael Genovese, chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare, tells SheKnows that a trigger is anything that “cause[s] your brain to believe your body is experiencing a threat, even if you are perfectly safe.” He goes on to explain that this occurs “because you’ve encountered something — usually sensory — that reminds you of a particularly negative event in your past.”
What being triggered does to your brain
If you’ve experienced a trauma, Dr. Aimee Daramus, a licensed clinical psychologist, says encountering a trigger can cause your body to go into fight-or-flight mode, as though you’re experiencing the trauma “right now instead of in the past.” So if you’ve ever felt frozen or as though you can’t think clearly when you’re triggered, you’ve got plenty of company — Daramus tells SheKnows that brain activity is impacted when something sensory reminds you of the trauma.
“There’s a big reduction in activity in the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain, which help you with planning, organizing and impulse control,” Daramus explains. “There’s a lot of activity in the survival parts of the brain, including the centers for fear and aggression. So you’re scared, upset [and] feeling as if there’s an emergency even if there isn’t. And your brain is scared, ready to defend itself, and not thinking as clearly as usual.”
What being triggered does to your body
Because your brain thinks you’re experiencing an immediate threat, Genovese explains that your body reacts accordingly. He says symptoms vary by individual, but some of the most common physical responses to triggers are heightened senses, an elevated heart rate and quickened pace of breath. “In some cases, your short-term memory is affected because the brain ceases functioning as it normally would,” he says.
“With or without PTSD, we all have stress triggers that can send our nervous system into fight-or-flight in an instant,” Dr. Amy Serin, neuropsychologist, founder of Serin Center and author of the upcoming book The Stress Switch, tells SheKnows. “In fact, our bodies are going in and out of this in a milder form all day long. ‘Oh, no’ or ‘What if?’ thoughts can turn your stress switch on and have your heart racing or your stomach tightening up.”
For individuals with PTSD, triggers are often everywhere, and it can impact a person’s ability to function if they don’t seek treatment. Dr. Marianna Strongin, clinical psychologist and founder of StronginTherapy, a private practice in Manhattan, treated many 9/11 survivors for PTSD in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Strongin tells SheKnows that when a person is traumatized, it can change their sense of the world. This is why people with PTSD are triggered by mundane events.
“After 9/11, patients were super-triggered by smell of any smoke, sound of any siren, sudden movement of any kind and even the sight of tall buildings,” she says. Because avoidance is one of the main symptoms of PTSD, Strongin treated these patients with “slow, gradual exposure to the feared response,” which helps teach the body that it’s no longer in danger.
She applies these concepts with her patients who have been traumatized by other life events. As an example, Strongin explains that one of her patients got a divorce after her husband was unfaithful. Although she is currently in a strong, happy marriage, Strongin explains that the patient is triggered when her husband’s tone changes, he’s late from work or he’s in a bad mood. These symptoms are treated by working to change the patient’s thinking about these events so that she’s no longer triggered by these everyday aspects of her marriage.
We all have different triggers, whether they’re the result of trauma or negative associations with a certain place, person or event. If triggers frequently affect your life, a therapist can help you address them and form coping mechanisms that will allow you to feel both emotionally and physically healthier.