“Trigger” is just a word

woman handcuffed

So earlier today I was at my local MAsT meeting. Side note: for those that don’t know what this is, it stands for Masters And slaves Together. It is a monthly discussion group focused on the M/s dynamic. Today’s topics were wonderful as always and I could probably write more than one article based on the entire meeting. However, I am going to focus on one part of the discussion that I found very insightful.

The person leading the discussion (not going to name them due to the fact I have not asked permission to do so) said that they didn’t like the word “trigger”. They went on to explain that this is because they’re experience with partners using the word trigger led them to a wall being put up. As in, “Don’t trigger me. That will trigger me and I don’t want to be triggered.” I realized that how I use and view triggers is very different and this was an enlightening moment.
Let me step back for a minute and explain first, that the word trigger can be used to describe something that incites a positive or negative reaction, emotionally and/or psychologically. For the purpose of this article I am using it to describe the negative reactions. An example of this is something like your partner is being silly and grabs your nose. In your past an abusive partner used to grab your nose and squeeze until you couldn’t breathe and it hurt. You have an automatic emotional response. Perhaps you swat your partners hand away and angrily yell at them to stop. Your partner is honestly just trying to be cute and is confused and hurt by your response.

Now – if you use the word trigger to avoid the issue or avoid personal growth, as the MAsT leader was accustomed to experiencing, then perhaps you tell your partner that grabbing your nose is a negative trigger and to never do it again. While this may lead to never being triggered in that way again, it doesn’t actually contribute to resolving it. It also doesn’t let your current partner “in”. You are putting up a wall instead.

Instead of treating triggers this way, I suggest using it more as a cue word. By the way, this issue was not an issue of disagreement during the discussion. Only the fact that I disagreed that the word “trigger” itself isn’t bad, it’s the way you use it.

So to use it as a cue, given the same example of the nose grabbing, here is how that might look different. You have the initial emotional reaction – because much of the time when a trigger is unexpected you don’t have much control over that piece. However, the initial response is followed by an open dialogue, transparent communication. A good place to start is by assuring your partner that your response had nothing to do with them, that it was a trigger and they did nothing wrong. The next step is explaining why it’s a trigger, opening up about your history, letting them understand what just happened. The next thing to do is to discuss the level of the trigger and how, or if, you can resolve the trigger.

It’s ok to have steps toward eliminating a trigger and it’s ok if it takes a little time, especially if it’s a strong trigger. It may take an initial period of avoidance followed by small, slow, trigger initiation until you get to the point that the emotional reaction becomes less and less and eventually becomes neutral – perhaps even positive. Your partner assuring you that their intention is positive and nothing to do with your past experiences.

Keep in mind I am giving a very general example of the process. This will need to be customized to your situation. The main point is that triggers shouldn’t be ignored and avoided. The word “trigger” should be seen as a cue that you need to sit down with your partner and work as a team to grow, connect, and hopefully overcome some of the negativity of your past.

Jennifer Masri is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, specializing in Alternative Lifestyles for individual and relationship issues. She also teaches the BDSM 101 class series at Sanctuary LAX in Los Angeles every Monday evening. Read more about Jennifer on her blog, A Kink Shrink.


  1. SmilingButch says:

    This is a great way to re-frame the use of “trigger.” I totally agree that open communication between you and your partner is necessary to work through a trigger.

  2. Absolutely! Thank you for this feedback!

  3. Real PTSD triggers can require years of therapy and hard work to recover from, so using the word trigger to describe a negative reaction bothers me. When I am triggered it is sometimes an unforeseen smell, sound, event etc that I may not even be able to identify. I have a very visceral physical reaction that involves a bad adrenaline rush, and can lead to almost a week of insomnia and debilitating headaches. So, I will identify my known triggers to my tops and the topic is closed.
    I really wish there were a separate word for, this bothers me a bunch and brings up some icky feeelings vs. a genuine PTSD trigger.

    • D – I appreciate you bringing this up. You’re right – PTSD is on a whole other level and needs to be treated professionally if possible. That is something most play/rel partners aren’t trained to do, nor should they being your partner. I guess it’s the difference between saying something will trigger you vs. something will trigger your PTSD. I wish there was a different common word we could use, however, this like so many things, comes down to clear communication.
      I really appreciate your input!

Speak Your Mind