What Does “Triggered” Mean, and What You Should Know About Overreacting

what does triggered mean

We hear the phrase, “that triggered me” a lot these days. Media people use it to explain why people overreact, in common language people use it to describe how they are frustrated by past situations. The phrase “being triggered” is used a lot but does it really mean what we think it means? To best answer the question, What does triggered mean? we first need to understand what we mean when we use this phrase.

  • Your spouse doesn’t immediately thank you for making dinner, causing a surge of anxiety your otherwise compassionate partner is self-absorbed and thoughtless like your father.
  • Your coworker seems not to notice their loud habits and distracting behaviors reminding you of the chaotic household in which you grew up and tempting you to feel powerless in changing it in any way.
  • Your teen sleeps through her alarm again, insisting she can’t get up without your help. You find yourself especially irritated knowing that from the time you were ten, you got up with your alarm, so why can’t she? Again, it doesn’t seem fair that you have to do this for her.

We can get triggered by a variety of things including situations, the media, or people. It all depends on our previous experiences, or baggage.  Unrecognized baggage is often at the root of our buttons and can make us more irritable, less patient, and quicker to react – not only to triggering situations, but to the people who trigger us too. Including our children, our coworkers, and our partners.

The answer to what does triggered mean will vary with the circumstances you are in.
Overwhelm, extra irritability and feeling out of balance can signal buttons being routinely pushed, as can feeling unable to manage your reaction to stress and frustration.

Yet your close relationships are the most likely places you will feel vulnerable to being triggered. No matter how healthy or safe your relationship is, anxiety and fear about the past can linger. And it is this baggage that can leave you open to being triggered.

When anxiety from past experiences finds its way into the present, it can leave you feeling confused and frustrated. The fears and anxiety can seem to come out of nowhere. (This is a key feature of a trigger.) And they can feel especially irrational when nothing in the present situation seems dangerous or unsafe.


When painful associations lodged in our minds are brought up in present situations, our reactions can feel overblown. The present experience feels familiar and our amygdala signals danger. We are triggered and our reaction is exaggerated.

~Alicia H Clark from Hack Your Anxiety~


Yet you can still worry that what happened before will happen again – this is normal, and your body trying to protect itself, but it needs to be put in perspective so you can feel control.

Here are a few key steps to take control of your baggage when you notice that one of your buttons has been pushed.


1) Aim to embrace your reaction, even if it feels overblown:

Adopting a mindset of working with your anxiety and fear rather than against it can help set the intention you need to take control. When we resist our reactions and try to avoid and shut them down, they do the opposite. They escalate.

Instead aim to look at your anxiety, fear, frustration or whatever uncomfortable emotion you are feeling directly. Embrace it, name it, and ask yourself what it is trying to tell you?

When you are triggered, you not only react to the situation in the present, but also to fears or anxiety from your past that feel similar to what’s happening now. This is your anxiety working for you – reminding you of a painful past situation you do not want to repeat.

If you can see a triggering situation as an opportunity to resolve a past hurt, you will better understand what’s happening, and be in firmer control of your reaction.


2) Check for “ghosts from the past” or when you’ve felt this way before

The more familiar you become with situations and relationship dynamics that can trip your personal triggers, the more quickly you can spot, and deal with them when they flare.

The goal is to catalogue and understand how your past experiences have shaped your vulnerabilities of today. We all have them. Understanding what are your unique buttons can help you more efficiently spot when they are pushed, before they further escalate your fears and anxiety.


Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too.
They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.
~Stephen King~



3) Sort through what’s in front of you vs what is something from the past

Once you understand your sensitive areas, you can better assess what is a rational concern and what is a ghost from the past which delivers a greater sense of control.

When you are caught up in reacting to a trigger, the past and the present can seem one and the same. Yet once you can identify past hurts being brought into a present situation, you can begin separating past from present.

What is happening in the present is what you need to deal with and what your triggered reaction is trying to alert you to. Teasing out the irrational fears from the rational ones can help you sort what’s happening.

The test for irrational fears is to ask yourself where is the evidence such a thing you are fearing will happen. If there is no evidence to support your fears, chances are likely it’s irrational. This doesn’t mean such a situation isn’t possible, it means it isn’t probable. 

When your mind starts spinning irrational fears and tall tales of what might be happening, try to pull back the possibilities so you can focus more on the probabilities. Instead of letting your fantasies run away with you, try instead to stay focused on the facts.

You might not be able to stop your thoughts or make them go away, but you can replace them with more reasonable ones which will help you feel less vulnerable to being triggered.


4) Remember you are in control

It may not feel like it, but when it comes to your reactions, you ARE in control.

One of the most destructive misconceptions about fears and anxiety is that they are out of our ability to control. According to ongoing research, one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences is a sense of being out of control – that something is happening to you which is exactly how being triggered can feel.

However, how you think about your fear and anxiety is very much within your control, and can have a defining impact on how we experience them. A huge study from the University of Wisconsin conducted in 2012 found that how we think about stress, not the amount of it, determines how it impacts us.

Similarly, Lisa Feldman Barrett, at the leading edge of a new science called emotional construction, notes that how we think about our psychological experiences actually determines how we feel them. How we think about what’s happening is especially important when it comes to recognizing we are triggered.

Instead of overreacting, we can remind ourselves that what we are feeling (a racing heart, heat in the face, tingling in the stomach) is just a signal that something going on in the present is reminding us of something in the past.

And this reminder helps put us in control.

Better understanding the situations that rattle you can pay off in helping you more quickly recognize them, and determine what response is most needed. As with most things, these strategies get easier the more you practice them.

Try to make a habit of asking yourself what else might be upsetting you when you find yourself reacting more strongly to a situation than feels reasonable (this is the hint one of your buttons has been pushed). Then work to comb through past from present.

Walking through these steps will help you better understand your triggers, and help you regain control. It’s ok if this takes time. This is who you are, and there is no shame in learning and healing from the past. In fact, learning and healing from the past is one of the bravest things you can do.


Looking for more help managing your buttons, and gaining more control?  Check out my book, Hack Your Anxiety, or sign up for my free mini-ecourse to learn more about taking control of anxiety, and harnessing it for good.


Photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD