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Trauma or Trigger – 3 Ways to Know the Difference

These days trigger warnings and ptsd are all over college campuses, counseling centers and popular culture. But if you’re confused, you’re not alone. I find it troubling that these two have been conflated to mean the same thing. They are in fact very different.

A trigger is like when you just came out to your mother as a vegetarian and then the next day she makes spaghetti and meatballs.

A trauma is when your mother repeatedly threw the spaghetti and meatballs at your father throughout your childhood.

One is not as bad as the other. The distinction may be important when seeking help.

Trauma treatment takes a long, special commitment to reprocessing highly charged material in a safe space. Triggers mean leaning on your anxiety to avoid upsetting situations. This may or may not be a good idea. Some say we are avoiding too much when really we should be facing our fears and not making the world bend to our will.

Here are 6 problems that distinguish the two.

1. You’re anxious but you show up anyway.
2. You can tolerate hearing a controversial point of view.
3. You make a new bathroom rule at your school.

1. You seek professional help for serious history of abuse.
2. You complain to the dean about sexual harassment.
3. You seek out like minded people to support you in your journey.

  • As Bessel van Der Kolk described in his seminal book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma is held in the body as follows, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” (p.97)” 

Whereas others describe triggers as,

  • The term is used more loosely to refer to stimuli that trigger upsetting feelings or problematic behaviors, and these feelings are often associated with a psychiatric condition. People who have triggers may re-engage in unhealthy behaviors when exposed to triggers. For example, a person recovering from anorexia might be triggered by photos of very thin people to begin starvation once again. Some mental health-oriented message boards and blogs put “trigger warnings” on material that might be harmful to some people. It is impossible to predict or avoid all triggers because so many triggers are innocuous, but images of violence, substance abuse, or weapons are sometimes labeled with a trigger warning.

A trigger can remind you of a trauma but is not the trauma itself.  A trigger is fear in the present whereas a trauma is a profound wound that has numbed out the past.

–Left Out

Not to minimize any person’s history of abuse, I raise these distinctions because as a trained therapist knows some things are worth avoiding; others are not.  Knowing the difference could be helpful. For example a young adult comes in my office and says she is triggered with social anxiety because she has a pimple.  Therefore, she will avoid all homecoming activities for the entire weekend at her school.  It reminds her too much of when she was in middle school and got teased.  However, with exposure to social situations, she will undoubtedly gain greater mastery of her social world.

On the other hand, if a young girl avoids a drunken bacchanal frat party because she was sexually assaulted at one such party freshman year, we must encourage her to stay calm and engage in self-care, whatever that takes, including avoidance until she is ready.

When in doubt seek assistance early and often. There must not be a stigma for helping one’s self in this current climate of fear and alienation.  We owe this much to ourselves.

Trauma or Trigger – 3 Ways to Know the Difference

Donna C. Moss

Donna Moss was a blog contributor at Psych Central.

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APA Reference
Moss, D. (2017). Trauma or Trigger – 3 Ways to Know the Difference. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Oct 2017
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