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Stressor vs. Trigger - What Is A Trigger?

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Whilst I do not engage most conversations here nowadays, I have been reading this word "trigger" get thrown about more and more over the past months, most of which I found to be completely incorrect for what a trigger actually is. It has gotten to a point where I feel members are getting way off track on what's really occurring within their own life to the point that trigger is being used so carelessly, as to what I can only construed as an excuse for their actions or an excuse to not do something that makes them anxious.

Most of what I read when trigger is used, the person is actually referring to a stressor within their life, not a trigger. How do you tell them apart? Really it is very easy if you understand what each one is.


A trigger is a symptomatic reaction from one of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) based only upon a direct connection to an actual traumatic event experienced.

Take note of that bold statement, as that's the key for distinction as to whether or not a reaction is to trigger or a stressor. So what is a stressor then?


A stressor is something that creates an increase in adrenaline that then triggers your internal stress response mechanism. Think about the PTSD Cup model, and this is a buildup of stressors or even one stressor, which then overflows your cup to trigger a stress response. Think iceberg of emotions. A buildup of negative emotion which peaks to a response, usually anger.

Now, the most common reaction to a trigger is a panic attack or increase in stress. The most common reaction to a stressor is a panic attack or increase in stress.

As you can see, the reaction is the same for a PTSD sufferer, but the terms vary dependent upon relevance to something experienced via the trauma endured or no relevance to the trauma endured. Lets use clear examples so people use the term correctly vs. use the term as an excuse in their daily life to avoid doing something that creates stress.

Examples Of Triggers & Stressors

Mary is raped by a white male, 6ft in height, long black hair, was wearing Hugo Boss Dark aftershave and said to her "you are so sweet" during the trauma.

  • Mary is going to be stressed by any male for some time as a result of being raped by a male. Males, white, black, chinese, etc, are not a trigger to Mary. Males in general are going to be a stressor to Mary initially, though her brain will soon move back to the acceptance that not all males are bad or rapists.
  • Any male that looks similar to her rapist, they MAY trigger Mary upon her sighting them. This could result in a flashback or panic attack. This is a trigger as it is directly related to her specific circumstance surrounding her trauma.
  • Any male who wears Hugo Boss Dark, could now trigger Mary upon her smelling the aftershave, as this is what her rapist was wearing when raping her, and is directly relevant to her trauma.
  • A 6ft white male who may startle Mary from behind, though looks nothing like her rapist, could trigger Mary upon initial turning around as the first thing her brain reviews is a 6ft white male. That initial response could be a trigger to a panic attack in combination with being startled. The startle response is a stressor. The 6ft male on initial sight could be the trigger as she could not see him coming.
  • If a male voice that sounds similar to her rapist, or even out of sight of her, whispered something to her or another person, "you are so sweet", then this could be a trigger to her, as it is directly related to her trauma being words spoken by her rapist to her during the act.
  • Mary is single with PTSD and her boyfriend comes over and wants to talk about their relationship. Mary says he is triggering her as she goes into a panic attack. This is not a trigger, this is a stressor because the thought of a relationship beyond what she has accepted is overloading her internal stress cup, thus it overflows or triggers her stress response, being panic attack, rage, anger, etc. Not a trigger, but a stressor.
There is a vast difference between the two. I am reading a lot of excuses containing trigger lately, and these are not healthy to PTSD in general. If you want to heal, if you want to seek improved self results, then you must always be honest with yourself and others on what is simply stressing you vs. what is triggering you.

More Examples - Military

  • I was in a crowd that had a hand grenade thrown into it. Upon return to Australia, crowded places was a trigger for me because upon being within or seeing a crowd, my brain triggered a stress response based on an actual event from my trauma.
  • Helicopters or fighter aircraft flying overhead may trigger a veteran as these are likely directly related to the noises surrounding them during operational deployments. A commercial aircraft is not a trigger. All planes and aircraft do not become triggers, only those relevant that they are immediately familiar.
  • Military vehicles may trigger a soldiers stress response, as they are directly related to their trauma. The backfiring of any vehicle may trigger a veteran as it is similar to a shot being fired.
  • Rifles in general or being fired may trigger a veteran.
  • Your girlfriend or boyfriend talking with you, annoying you, are not a trigger, but a stressor to your internal stress cup, ie. all the stress you can take thus your internal stress model overflows and triggers a stress response, anger, yelling, fighting, etc.
Are Triggers & Stressors Forever?

No. You deal with triggers and stressors with exposure therapy, being the most prominent of any method to date for effective treatment of these two matters. You remove triggers and stressors by desensitisation to any event that triggers or stresses you. This is a behavioural modification therapy. You repeatedly expose yourself to the very things that stress you, each time learning and applying facts of the situation to your response. Each time you repeat the process, your stress response reduces thus reducing your recovery time, until such period you can now do and act within society without a trigger or stress response through behavioural modification to what would be classed as "normal" society behaviours.

Trauma experiencing is a behavioural modification process which creates negative events such as triggers and stressors. You are simply reversing this behavioural modification that took place with a detailed plan of attack.

I hope people have a better idea of what a stressor and trigger actually is, and apply them correctly within their life so each can be dealt with correctly and honestly.

One question: where do "emotional flashbacks" fit into this, provided they actually exist (they seem to)?

That is, how does a person discriminate between what they feel being triggered by an emotional flashback, or determining that what they feel is actually the accurate conclusion of the facts in the present? (-does that make sense?)

For example, based on an interaction with someone, you feel that they are not trustworthy, not sincere, don't understand. How do you tell exactly if all of those things are actually true, or if just because you start feeling "one" of them the rest 'come along for the ride' (as they were in a past traumatic experience/ history).

My only guess is being discriminating, and that recognizing that 'flashbacks' are instantaneous.
Sorry this isn't clearer, can't find the words. -Thanks.
I'm no expert but isn't a flashback a symptom? So would it then be logical to assume that a trigger could cause a flashback being the symptom to the trigger?

The two are inter related I think & it would take for you to then 'teach' yourself that what is happening is not the same as the past and try & reason with yourself to over come the flashback with then becomes similar to exposure therapy? I'm sure Anthony will have a good answer for you though.
One question: where do "emotional flashbacks" fit into this, provided they actually exist (they seem to)?
There is actually no such thing as an emotional flashback. Big misinterpretation which some physicians online decide to use in order to make their articles seem more compelling.

A flashback is the only legitimate and factual term. A definition or understanding of a flashback is often where misinformation begins. Movies portray a flashback to be a movie like stream of a past event, and that's not true at all. A flashback is a "re-experiencing" event associated to a memory. The re-experiencing aspect of a flashback can be visual, auditory, emotional and more.

To your point though... you are really either triggered or you are having a flashback, but you aren't triggered into a flashback.

A flashback is not a fleeting memory, whether visual or emotional, it is a complete "re-experiencing" event.

A trigger is a symptomatic reaction from one of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) based only upon a direct connection to an actual traumatic event experienced.

A trigger produces an instant symptomatic reaction. A flashback produces a visual or emotional re-experiencing of an event. You can then have an increase in symptoms from a flashback, but they are different.

The word trigger is often used with flashback in the wrong context or meaning, hence the issues of definition. A flashback is typically formed upon an action around you (trigger), ie. it could be the smell of a specific aftershave that produces a flashback. Remember, a flashback is a "re-experiencing" event, either visual or emotional, but it is an actual re-experience, not just an instantaneous thought via one of the five senses to produce an immediate reaction. The fallout from a flashback could be instant or become heightened after hours later. A trigger is a near instant reaction from one of your senses. Even though your senses provoke a flashback, it doesn't mean you are triggered, it means you are "re-experiencing" the event in a specific manner associated with a memory. You have to look at the key words used in both cases.

Trigger = starts from one of your senses and end instantly in a reaction. Not a full memory or re-experiencing event, ending with an instant symptomatic reaction.

Flashback = a memory recall that could be started via a sense, though could just be started by a thought, though is an actual "re-experiencing" event, whether full or partial, but more than just a fleeting thought. Does not end in an instant symptomatic reaction, though could have some or heightened reactions hours or days later.

A trigger or flashback can have long lasting symptomatic results, considering the effects PTSD can cause. You have to think of a trigger as something you have engrained already in your brain, it is a memory you are aware off, its something you remember about an event. Yes, it can be something you have suppressed, but you still know that it is directly related to a trauma you have experienced. Flashback... now something has occurred that you are actually re-experiencing a part or total traumatic event, visually or emotionally. A trigger has no re-experiencing component to it. It is one or the other, but not both.
Anthony- THANK YOU- for once it makes sense (in WORDS), -seriously. That is so right, that is exactly right.

And wow, that helps immensely, because I never thought flashbacks were an issue for me, but described that way they are a bigger issue for me than triggers. Maybe not so much now, if I know what's actually 'happening' to me, now I can at least work on recognizing and dealing with them.

Thank you, your expertise is priceless.-
Just a little note I thought maybe some people may find useful in relation to triggers and dealing with them. One of my triggers is balconies, being that my best friend jumped off one in front of me, etc. When I was in Thailand I was living in an apartment complex on the top floor of a 9 storey building. A had a small balcony off the bedroom and that thing stressed me out so much I found myself sleeping on the couch/futon every night because I couldnt sleep with the balcony in view (it reminded me too much of that balcony that night (ie, they were both similar in size, both quite high off the ground, similar railing, etc).

I've recently moved into a new apartment and I have a balcony. Only there are some major differences which have eliminated it being a triggering thing. Firstly, it's quite large (more like a terrace). But mostly, there is a fence up around it which is reasonably high and is double sided (for the privacy of residents). I can still enjoy the view but it does not feel or look in any way like a balcony. It looks a lot more like a courtyard. I have not been triggered by it once! It is perfect for my needs. I suppose, to put it into a positive light - I've found I can now again enjoy having a balcony in my life without it bothering me or setting me off. It's wonderful. I look outside and I think 'oh a lovely courtyard' and not 'ahhhh a balcony - get me out of here'. I didn't actually realise until reading this thread just how much easier I could make my life simply by removing/modifying such a trigger which was in my constant view. Sounds simple, but it's been huge.
Thanks for taking the time to explain this in full, Anthony. Maybe this would make a good sticky? Good reference thread for sure.

If I have an actual physical reaction, as in a sensation at the point of injury, head movement, body jerk - relating to my torture, that is a flashback. Right? However subtle, no residual symtom, still a flashback.

If I go to the pool and there's bunches of people and tons of noise, just general sensory chaos, that is a stressor.

If I go to the pool and weird out 'cause some old dude who resembles my dad is staring at me, that's a trigger. LOL.

If I write about my bulimia, and suddenly find a tiny urge to binge/purge, I have triggered myself. (I think that's right?) :-)

Since I got in a serious rear end collision once (though hit three times) an aggressive tailgateing driver *might* at first be a (significant) stressor (cause tons of people drive too close), then as the car gets *way* too close - is probably a trigger. That's when I put on my blinker, pull over, and let the driver go past.
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