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Trigger Warning: Developing An Understanding Of Your Triggers

The word “trigger” and the use of the phrase “trigger warning” has become more prominent in mainstream culture today as society becomes increasingly aware of trauma and mental health. Trauma can be associated with any kind of traumatic event which feels out of someone’s control. Addiction, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, mood disorders, psychiatric disorders- almost all mental health conditions end up being rooted in the experience of some kind of trauma in someone’s life. Trigger warnings are used to let a mass audience know that a particularly difficult subject is going to be discussed openly. Commonly, topics like rape, sexual abuse, violence, drug and alcohol use are triggers for those who are recovering. Talk of suicide, loss, and violence can be triggering too. There are many shared triggers. Each individual has their own set of triggers as well. Developing an understanding of your triggers is part of developing a relapse prevention plan. Relapse prevention is the set of tools, actions, and practices to prevent yourself from reacting to any kind of situation with default behaviors- primarily engaging in the harmful use of drugs and alcohol. Triggers are not uncontrollable and you are not left weak or victimized in their wake. The first step to overcoming triggers and learning how to manage them is understanding them.

Pay Attention When You Feel Stimulated By Something

You might not yet recognize what feeling “triggered” is like. If you are in recovery from drugs and alcohol, it’s a very simply situation. Feeling triggered is any moment when your immediate reaction is: I want to use. I want to get high. During the early recovery months that can happen a hundred times a day from no hot water in the shower to hearing an especially mean comment. Drugs and alcohol become the habitual behavioral default for coping with difficult and uncomfortable situations. Keep a journal for a week to notice each time you feel inspired to drink or use. At the end of each day, look at the triggers and see if there is a common theme.

Start Looking For The Theme

Noticing the different situations which are triggering, you’ll notice commonalities between them. This is the situation of the trigger, or situational trigger. It might be something like feeling out of control, fear of being abandoned, not having your needs met, being bullied, perceiving someone’s judgments as negative. You might find you make a jerk reaction assumption about all of these moments. As someone in the beginning phases of recovery, and as any human beginning to do this work, that is exactly what you are supposed to do . Overtime, you’ll learn to pause, reflect, then choose how you want to respond. You will not feel triggered by everything forever, that is a promise of recovery. It gets better.

Transformative healing can take place during a few months of recovery. Enlightened Solutions provides recovery for mind, body, and spirit with our integrative partial care programs for men and women. For more information, call 833-801-5483.

Understanding “Trigger Warnings”

Movies are rated from G to X, increasing in severity of material. G stands for General Audience, meaning the material should be enjoyable to most people. X tends to mean there is intense sexual or violently graphic content. An R-rated movie, for example, is not open to anyone younger than age 18 and requires valid ID to enter. The rating system is supposed to prevent children from experiencing film content which could be disturbing to them. Similar rating systems happen before TV shows air, as labels on music albums, and even on books.

School systems adopted a warning system to aid students before class. College is meant to be a time of mental and psychological growth. The mind is being opened, challenged, and pushed more than it has in previous academic training. Consequently, some minds may not be prepared for some of the material presented, especially if it will trigger trauma.

In psychology, a “trigger” is a stimulus that brings up especially difficult emotions, memories, or physical feelings. “Triggers” are usually assigned to experiences undergone by people who have been diagnosed with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. For example, a military veteran who has returned to civilian life and is pursuing an education might be triggered by videos shown in class about war. People experience a spectrum of traumas in their lives. Though there is no way of knowing who will be triggered by what trauma, it is considered respectful of academic institutions to offer a warning. Students need to maintain their mental health in order to perform well and survive school.

Arguments against Trigger Warnings

Richard J. McNally recently wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “If you Need a Trigger Warning, You Need PTSD Treatment”, responding to Chicago University Dean Jay Ellison. The Dean came under fire recently when he openly proclaimed in his welcoming letter to incoming students (class of 2020) that there would be no “trigger warnings” available for them this academic school year.

McNally argues that while trauma is common, an actual diagnosis of PTSD is rare. He cites that most people have experienced trauma and end up with “transient stress symptoms”. Though triggering situations are stressful, they are manageable. Few people do not recover. Someone with untreated or ongoing PTSD will have episodes in reaction to triggering course material. Interestingly, McNally argues that encouraging the avoidance of triggering material, like allowing the student to skip class, prevents important healing. Demonstratively, adverse reaction to college classes on an emotional level indicates a need for more mental health care in the student.


Though teachers may be advised against giving students a trigger warning, it would benefit them to be aware of mental health first aid. Should a student be troubled by class material, a teacher should be prepared to guide that student toward the campus counseling office for psychological services. Underlying mental health issues might surface for the first time when someone is away at college, on their own for the first time. Of course, one cannot expect the world around them to be sensitive to their particular triggers. Learning how to manage mental health is as important for young people as learning anything else in school.