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Understanding triggers

June 27, 2022

A ‘trigger’ describes something that sets off an emotional response of some kind in your body. This response can be powerful – for instance a particular trigger could lead to a panic attack for someone who has anxiety. Triggers can involve any of the senses, such as a sound, sight or smell, or a combination of more than one.


Two types of triggers

Sometimes it’s obvious what has triggered the reaction. A loud bang from a firework close by might startle you, setting off your fight or flight response. In this case, it’s easy to identify what happened, recognise it’s not a threat, and settle yourself quickly as long as the noise doesn’t get louder or isn’t repeated.  


With more subtle triggers, a reaction can seem to come out of the blue, and you may not easily be able to tell what caused it. Someone who has PTSD after being mugged at a cashpoint, for example, may have noticed that the mugger had a bald head and wore a red shirt. They might react if someone stands too close next time they’re at a cashpoint, and it’s likely they’d realise this was a result of the experience they had. However, they could also find their heart rate and breathing get faster if they’re walking down the street and see a bald man in a red shirt coming towards them. It can be disconcerting when your body is reacting and you can’t quite put your finger on the cause!


Looking for danger

Understanding why this kind of response happens can be helpful. It’s due to neuroception – a term coined by Dr Stephen Porges to describe a subconscious system for detecting threat that all animals possess, and which is essential for survival.


In the last example, the brain picked up on the combination of bald head and red shirt as a possible signal for impending danger. Without realising it, we’re constantly scanning and assessing the environment around us for danger cues – and it isn’t a cognitive process. Our brains take meaning from these cues and make predictions based on prior experiences and learnings, and our bodies then respond as though this was a certainty.


The advantage we have as humans is that we have the capability to make sense of what’s happening.


Get a grip on your triggers

Gaining a good understanding of your triggers will help you to manage them.


Track and write down in a diary when you experience the response that’s causing you difficulties. Become aware of the emotion and the physical sensation behind it. Note down when it happens, where you are, and who you’re with. What else was going on? Are you reacting according to a previous experience? It’s common to have a web of different triggers.


Next time the trigger appears you can make a conscious choice to send signals to your mind and body to calm yourself down and regulate your safety system, for example telling yourself there’s no danger and deliberately slowing and deepening your breathing.


Use all of your five sense to ground yourself in the present. Noticing the details can help you to return to the moment, orient yourself in the here and now, and move away from the link to the past experience that’s troubling you. What can you smell? See? Hear?


Noticing what’s different can also be effective; this is known as stimulus discrimination. Identify the ways in which your current situation isn’t the same as the past experience. For instance, if a piece of music takes you right back to a sad time in your life, note that it’s a different time of year, and you’re with different people, for instance.


In some cases we have a choice in how we approach our triggers. While avoidance isn’t normally encouraged in CBT, this can sometimes be a way of preventing emotional reactions that cause us problems. For instance, if there’s a particular person who tends to trigger a low mood, you might be able to limit your contact with them or set boundaries.


Often, however, either triggers aren’t avoidable, or there’s a good reason to face and address them – if they’re getting in the way of how we want to live our life, affecting our wellbeing or stopping us from pursuing our goals and values. If you’re struggling to make a change, either because it’s overwhelming or you’re just not sure how, it’s a good idea to seek support. CBT is an effective therapy for managing the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression – find out more about that here.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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