At some point in the last few years, you’ve likely seen the phrase “trigger warning” or abbreviation “TW” online, or heard someone say they were “triggered” by something.

Triggers are anything that might cause a person to recall a traumatic experience they’ve had. For example, graphic images of violence might be a trigger for some people.

Less obvious things, including songs, odors, or even colors, can also be triggers, depending on someone’s experience.

A trigger warning is simply a way of letting people know the content they’re about to consume may contain triggers. This gives people the chance to avoid that content if they wish.

Triggers aren’t anything new, but the concept of them has started popping up more and more in casual conversation and mainstream media, leading to confusion and debate on the topic.

In mental health terms, a trigger refers to something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress.

A trigger affects your ability to remain present in the moment. It may bring up specific thought patterns or influence your behavior.

Triggers vary widely and could be internal or external. Specific phrases, odors, or sounds can all be triggers for people who have experienced traumatic events, such as:

  • rape
  • military conflict
  • physical assault
  • emotional abuse
  • loss of a loved one

Reading or watching something about a similar traumatic event can also trigger distressing memories or flashbacks for people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Substance use disorders often involve triggers, too. Many people find it helpful to learn their triggers so they can recognize them and choose to either avoid them or come up with a plan for dealing with them.

Part of treating conditions like PTSD and substance use disorders often involves working on ways to cope with triggers in helpful, productive ways.

In recent years, people have started including trigger warnings for content dealing with a range of topics, including:

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but descriptions of any of the above could contribute to upsetting memories or flashbacks if you’ve had a traumatic experience related to any of these things.

You may have also seen a trigger warning before content that refers to or shows:

  • political viewpoints
  • insects
  • bodily waste, such as vomit, feces, or urine
  • nudity
  • medical issues
  • blood
  • religious topics

Discomfort vs. trauma

There’s no doubt these topics can be unpleasant, offensive, or distasteful. But it’s important to understand the distinction between discomfort and trauma.

For a lot of people, these topics won’t cause flashbacks, dissociation, or other distressing emotional experiences.

The more casual use of trigger warnings usually comes from a good place, but it can sometimes have an unintentionally negative impact for people dealing with trauma.

For example, it’s led some folks to believe that people who need trigger warnings are overly sensitive, fragile, or incapable of coping with distress. People may also say they’re triggered without a true understanding of what being triggered involves.

Some triggers are common. For example, reading descriptions of rape might trigger flashbacks or distress for many rape survivors. But triggers also vary between people.

Here’s a look at how triggers might affect different people.

Loss of a loved one

On someone’s 10th birthday party, just after they’d blown out a birthday candle and cut into a triple-layer chocolate cake, they heard the squeal of car brakes, a thud, and then, after a brief pause, screaming. They had the fork halfway in their mouth, so they could smell and taste the sweetness of the cake.

Next, their parents run out to see what happened. When they don’t immediately come back in, the person goes outside and hears their mother screaming. They then see their brother’s crumpled bike on the lawn. In response to the shock, they vomit up the cake they just ate.

Fast-forward to 10 years later. This person may find that birthday parties, especially with children, cause them distress. When they smell or taste chocolate cake, they may hear the squeal of the tires or be brought back to vomiting on the front lawn.

Military combat

A soldier was stationed abroad and waiting in a quiet street outside a house they thought was empty. A garbage truck rattled by, close enough for them to smell the rotting food and waste.

The sound of the truck faded, but then they heard several deafening booms. Before they could even get their weapon, they lost their entire unit over the course of two back-to-back explosions.

Now, every time they hear or smell a garbage truck (or anything that sounds like one), they get tense and reach for a gun that isn’t there.

Substance misuse

Someone used to hide their alcohol in an old wooden box. Every time they opened the box, the smell of cedar would rush out. They’d put on a favorite album and sit back in bed, drinking.

They know at which point in the album they’ll start feeling the effects of the alcohol. Eventually, they build up a tolerance to the alcohol and listen to the entire album without feeling any of the effects. This leaves them feeling hopeless.

Years later, whenever they see an old wooden box or smell cedar, they crave a drink and feel the burn of alcohol in the back of their throat. And the album makes them remember how they felt at that point.

When they hear a song from the album in public, they have to take a minute to remind themselves that they aren’t in that place anymore.

If you’ve experienced trauma and have triggers, the debate surrounding triggers and the use of trigger warnings can be uncomfortable.

Maybe you’ve experienced pushback when trying to tell someone you’re feeling triggered. Or maybe you’re self-conscious about telling someone about your triggers, because they tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to any mention of the topic.

If someone often brings up triggering topics to you, these tips can help you broach the subject in a productive way:

  • State your feelings as specifically as possible. “When you said X, it made me feel anxious and afraid because of my history.”
  • State a boundary. “It’s hard for me to talk about X. If it comes up in conversation, I’ll need to leave the room.”
  • Ask for a warning. “I know it’s hard to avoid the subject of X. Could you let me know beforehand if it’s going to come up?”

As you navigate these conversations, remember that trauma is a complex but very real experience that affects people in a variety of ways.

Not everyone who experiences something potentially traumatic develops residual trauma or triggers. This fact leads some people to question the legitimacy of triggers in general.

Traumatic experiences can affect people in various ways. Two people may have similar traumatic experiences but respond to them in very different ways due to a range of factors, such as:

  • age during the traumatic event
  • underlying mental health conditions
  • family history
  • access to a support network
  • cultural or religious beliefs

Generally, trigger warnings are given to help prevent people who have experienced trauma from experiencing the trauma again and experiencing mental health symptoms as a result.

The concept of having such a warning stems from research on PTSD. But not everyone agrees with this approach.

Impact on people without traumatic experiences

While many experts believe that trigger warnings allow people who’ve experienced trauma to decide whether they’re prepared to see or read something, others think they’re potentially harmful to people who haven’t experienced trauma.

A 2018 study of 270 people with no history of trauma suggests trigger warnings made the participants feel more vulnerable. Many reported feeling more anxious when they received a warning about potentially distressing content before reading the material.

Impact in the classroom

Some university professors have noted that including trigger warnings may help prepare students living with PTSD and allow them to leave if they don’t feel ready to face a potential trigger in the classroom.

Learning how to cope with triggers is part of PTSD treatment. But a classroom may not always feel like a safe space to do so.

Other educators have voiced concern that these trigger warnings encourage students to avoid uncomfortable topics or viewpoints that are important to consider. Some have also suggested they may limit a student’s ability to openly consider difficult concepts.

Who’s right?

The debate around triggers and trigger warnings is complex. There isn’t a right or wrong answer about how they should be discussed and used. Both experts and the general population will likely continue debating the issue for years to come.

“Triggered” has taken on several new meanings in recent years, leading to a lot of confusion about what it actually means. For people who’ve experienced trauma, being triggered is a very real and concerning phenomenon. And while it may not be someone’s intention, using the term to refer to someone they believe is being very emotional or sensitive only adds to the stigma surrounding mental health.