Triggered or Activated?

“Triggered” gets thrown around often, so much so that its meaning becomes diluted.  I have started to differentiate “triggered” from “activated consistently”, so I can capture the whole spectrum of experiences that make emotions flare.

The words we use matter a lot, because they are one of the main tools we have, to both, understand and communicate our stories, our experiences, our thoughts, and our feelings. Why not capture all thier nuances with greater acuity?


Triggered, then, can specifically refer to your internal experience intensifying in response to a traumatic stimulus: with heightened thoughts, sensations, emotions, mental images, etc. This can result in also behaving more intensely, shutting down, or trying to please and appease others (more on trauma in the next post). For example, if you had a terrible accident and you heard a specific pitch of a horn while it was happening, you might feel very intense fear and see the accident happening again in your mind’s eye (a flashback) when you hear that pitch of horn two years later. You are triggered.


By contrast, activated can refer to a similar process inside of you, but on a much smaller scale. For example, your best friend has a history of being late and you’re not the biggest fan of that behavior. Today, you’re supposed to go to the movies, and they message you to say they will arrive after the movie starts. You might feel some frustration, anxiety, and hurt, and think back to all those other times they were late. You are activated.

Being activated or triggered occurs on a spectrum: this means it may not always be clear which is which. However, reflecting on the very question can be a great starting point to engage our thinking or observing brain, and tone down our emotional brain. Thinking about our experiences and giving them words is an extremely powerful practice – although it is not the whole story! What we feel in our bodies, how we move, how we interact with others, what we do, the world we live in… It is all to be considered.

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