As awareness of the diversity of mental health issues affecting individuals has grown, the phrase ‘trigger warning’ has become a part of everyday conversation. But what is a trigger? Are everyone’s triggers the same?

 The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare talks about stress and trauma and the difficulty in getting ‘… accurate information about the prevalence of stress and trauma and associated impacts because of the complex events and variation in individual responses.’ What we can say is that stress, trauma, PTSD, and mental illness all impact individuals differently and each person will have specific things that ‘trigger’ them as a result of their history and their personal mental health status. Broadly speaking, a trigger is a response your body has to a situation – either spoken, witnessed, heard or experienced – that causes a reaction within you.  

 Learning what our triggers are and how to navigate them is important, and with the holiday season upon us, there’s no better time for discovery than now.


Pay attention to learn about the things you commonly react to

If you’re experiencing the same feelings and responses in different social or work settings, when certain topics are raised, or when you’re around certain behaviours, it’s likely these are things that trigger you. It may be a certain topic of conversation, or being around specific types of people or social groups. If there are certain people or subjects that you’re around often, it can be useful to ask yourself “what do I feel when I’m around this person?” or “this feeling of X that I have, always happens when X is around or discussed”. Make some notes over time, see if there are any patterns to your reactions and you may start to see some common triggers.    

Recognise your reactions and manage them accordingly

Being triggered is usually a result of something that has happened to you in the past. Therefore, it has little to do with the person or event that is causing you to feel triggered. Being aware of what things are triggering you to have a specific response every time, will also help you to recognise what your reactions are and decide whether they are problematic. You can’t control the outside world and how it impacts on you, but you can try to manage your own reactions to it. If the idea of that is challenging, you can also get professional help to support you in managing your experiences and responses.


Identify problematic behaviours that may be a result of deep internal triggers

For wounds that go deep, triggers can be a little harder to manage day to day. For some people, a generalised experience of stress can cause them to smoke, drink, or indulge to excess in problematic activities. Repetitive cycles of dysfunctional relationships, or noticeable patterns of introversion for example can also be signs of deeply engrained trauma. Having supportive friends and family can be useful, but ongoing work with a professional also establishes a safe and secure framework for historic traumas to be explored and triggers identified and managed.    


Set up protective mechanisms for triggering situations

Once you have established awareness of your own emotional triggers and reactions, you can put protective strategies in place that empower you to better manage your reactions when confronted by triggering situations. For some people, it might be to remove themselves from that situation, for others it might be a support buddy and a code word or look that helps them to get through it. Some people find Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques useful to help them manage triggering situations. Thankfully today there are more and more situations where a trigger warning will be identified before the trigger is presented, for example – a radio or TV program may say “trigger warning, we will be discussing the topic of suicide next, so if this is triggering for you, please skip or come back in a few minutes”. 


Practice self-care to strengthen your mental resilience and wellbeing

Developing a strong foundation of mental health and wellbeing to help us navigate daily life is great advice for everyone – triggered or not! Every individual has different needs, so choose your own path when it comes to implementing regular calm, meditative, or mindful activities into your routine. There is literally something for everyone now – from yoga, meditation and mindfulness apps, podcasts videos and classes, to a daily walk, throwing a ball with the dog in a park, spending time with people who matter to you, or regularly engaging in a hobby or activity you enjoy.     

This time of year can be particularly challenging for many people – whether spent with others or alone, with abundance or in struggle. It’s important to remember that we each live our own unique experience, and there is always support available.   

If you are experiencing any of the feelings or symptoms mentioned in this article, contact your GP for a consultation. You can also call us at Carry on Victoria on 03 9629 2648 for advice on what to do next. The number for Lifeline is 13 11 14 and more information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue. If you are a veteran, know a veteran or are the family member of a veteran who is going through difficulties, you can contact the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs for assistance or contact us at Carry on Victoria and we can point you in the right direction.