Understanding Mental Illness Triggers


Anything and everything can happen overnight in the world in which we live. Through misfortunes, the passing of a loved one, divorce, family conflict or the onset of an illness, we’re all victims of life's random circumstances. So, how would all this uncertainty impact a person's brain?

Individual triggers differ from one person to the other and may be internal or external. Something could affect you significantly, while your friend or partner may be blissfully unaffected by the same event.

An event or circumstance that creates a negative emotional response is known as a trigger or stressor. When we talk about triggers in relation to mental health, we're talking about something that has triggered or intensified symptoms.


How are triggers formed? 

Scientists and medical experts theorise that your brain stores memories of traumatic events differently than memories of non-traumatic events. When triggered, the brain may misinterpret past traumatic events as present ones. So, your body starts to “feel” as if the trauma is happening in real time, creating that flight-or-fight response. Even if nothing around you is happening, you may still feel dizzy, scared and panicked.

Types of triggers

External triggers:
a particular person, place or circumstance. Typical, everyday circumstances or a slight inconvenience may trigger someone with a mental illness.

Internal triggers: internal triggers are, to put it simply, coming from yourself. It could manifest as a thought, a feeling or an emotion. For example, you hear a song that reminds you of your ex and it triggers sadness or anxiety.

Trauma triggers: strong feelings triggered by a previous tragedy. For instance, fireworks may distress you and trigger memories of a period when you saw an accident or violent crime.

Symptom triggers: these triggers can be brought on by theonset of an illness. For example, bipolar disorder symptoms could be triggered by sleep deprivation.

How to cope with triggers

At times, it helps to be able to stay away from a triggering circumstance, but sometimes, this isn’t possible. Emotional processing is necessary to learn how to manage those troubling triggers that you can’t predict or avoid. Start with these simple steps:

  • Ask for help by finding a therapist, support group or counsellor. 
  • Daily exercise can help a lot in boosting your feel-good hormones and reducing body stress.
  • Are you breathing correctly? Deep, long sustained breaths help you refocus and ground yourself. 
  • Start writing your feelings in a journal, close the pages and move on. In a few days, come back to that entry and you may be surprised at how “small” the situation seems. Journaling can significantly help in putting triggers into perspective.
  • Think about responses to past triggers, including who or what was involved, where, when, and why it happened. To avoid a cycle of repeated events, look out for patterns and warning signs.
  • Create an action plan to handle triggers and emotional responses. Let your loved ones know how to best support you when you are triggered. It could be as simple as needing a hug or taking yourself out for a walk.
  • Speak up when someone is triggering you and tell them about the effects of their actions. 


You don’t have to suffer in silence. There’s so much help out there for mental health issues, all you have to do is be brave enough to take the first step. Start by asking friends, colleagues or family for recommendations. 

Alternatively, check if your company has an employee wellness programme through which you can confidentially find assistance. A mental health professional is trained to teach you how to manage your thoughts and emotions. If you can’t commit to face-to-face sessions, why not try an online support group where you can post questions, read others’ feedback and advice, and understand that you are not alone.


This article is for informational purposes only. Always check with your doctor or medical practitioner about any health concerns, before embarking on any fitness or nutrition programme, and usage of any medication.