Emotional triggers are a problem for people with a wide range of conditions. They are relevant to this glossary because, whether we are neurodivergent, have mental health conditions, or a combination of these, it is important to learn what our triggers are, so we can do our best to avoid them, or prepare for them.

When we are triggered we are in a high state of arousal, we become emotional, distraught, angry, tearful – any or all of these and more. We have an extreme emotional reaction to the smallest of seemingly harmless events or objects – such as a certain smell, a song, visiting a particular town, seeing old photos, writing about difficult experiences, to name just a few examples. The original traumatic experience caused us to be in a heightened negative emotional state (fight, flight or freeze), and when we are exposured to triggers that we associate with this experience, these feelings and sensations can return instantly.

Someone diagnosed with PTSD, for instance, may find that watching certain content on TV triggers flashbacks to their traumatic event/situation. It’s always worth checking the content warnings at the start, with this in mind.

A personal example: as a passenger, I get triggered by sudden brake lights in front of us on the motorway, because of a previous car incident over thirty years ago. I go into instant meltdown – screaming, crying, sweating, getting angry. I’ve had one session of EMDR therapy this year, which helped to an extent, but more helpful was the advice to use distraction techniques such as stims, reading, looking out the side window etc. I still get triggered if I don’t do these things but I can’t completely avoid being a passenger, so I use these strategies to minimise the impact as much as I can.

OCD triggers occur quite differently, in that they tend to kick in when the person has left the routines and usual environment. According to NOCD, it is when people with OCD are on holiday, with friends relaxing, or in some other way enjoying themselves that intrusive thoughts tend to rear up out of nowhere and trigger their anxiety and their obsessive behaviours.

Very differently, common autistic triggers tend to be more predictable – certain sounds, smells, bright lights, busy social situations. Sensory stimuli are extremely triggering, often leading to meltdowns, selective mutism, increased anxiety, physical symptoms – such as stomach upsets, nausea or headaches. Learning our triggers will really help us to understand our needs and our limitations so that we can spend less of our lives feeling stressed by our environments.