Emotional Safety: Learn Your Triggers

overhead of young brunette woman in white tee laying on bare mattress with eyes closed and hand across forehead

Triggers. What are they and what do they mean?

Maybe your conservative dad writes them off as a snowflake defense mechanism. Or maybe your friends throw the term around when joking around. Either way, it can be hard to understand what a “trigger” really is. And being able to put a word to that moment when you get uncomfortable or overwhelmed can seem impossible. Especially as it’s happening. 

Survivors of sexual assault or other trauma may know specific things that trigger them. However, it’s totally normal not to know what’s going to make you uncomfortable, until you’re feeling uncomfortable. Let’s face it, most people have something that makes them a little anxious. May it be taxes, cellulite, or family reunions, even the most level-headed people sometimes feel totally chaotic. 

Whether you’re in a relationship or just being casual with someone, sex can bring up a lot of emotions and memories — both negative and positive. You (hopefully) are never trying to make your partner uncomfortable, and often triggers happen by mistake. The goal is not just to anticipate triggers before they happen. The goal is to know how to talk about triggers, if and when they do inadvertently come up. 

Knowing what your triggers are, and more importantly, how to talk about them can help you and your partner feel connected and supported by each other. Talking about these things may feel a little intimidating. But getting clear on your boundaries and comfort levels before turning up is a hundred times easier than dealing with an emotional shift in the middle of having sex. 

What is a “trigger”?

Seriously reflecting on your emotional triggers can be really confusing. If you’re not used to talking about your feelings or if you struggle to name what’s going on your head, it might not be easy to find what’s provoking the discomfort. 

So, consider this.

You’re out doing errands drinking a latte from a reusable cup with the metal straw, (you love the earth.) As you head to the checkout, you see the person in front of you is wearing a super cute vintage denim jacket. It kinda reminds you of something but you don’t quite know why. When you leave the store, you remember it looks just like the jean jacket your freshman year college roommate had. You start thinking about where your roommate is now, if she ever married that guy she was dating, what she does for work, etc. Before you even load your groceries in the car you’re looking at her Instagram. 

You haven’t thought about this girl in years, yet after seeing someone in a jean jacket in the express lane at Sprouts, you’re remembering all the nights you got wasted on Malibu and cried about boys and the time you caught her wearing the necklace your grandma got you. 

Though this example is super simplified and void of traumatic memory, this is kind of how a trigger works. There you are, living your life, doing your thing, and something external to you reminds you of a memory or experience in the past. It’s automatic, out of your control, and happens so fast you may not realize it until hours or days after. 

In the simplest terms, a trigger is something that provokes an uncomfortable or overwhelming emotional reaction from you. In life, this could be something that reminds you of a car accident you were in once or the way your dad used to scream at you for not doing the dishes. 

What about sexual triggers?

Sexual triggers can be a little more complicated. You may not know why something is making you feel icky or turned off in the moment. 

Maybe you feel super icky about certain words being used to describe you or your body. You may hate certain parts of your body being touched. Perhaps you don’t like certain positions or moves. Maybe some role-playing scenarios make you nervous.

A sexual trigger can be something that reminds you of a negative or traumatic experience you had, brings up body image or self-esteem feelings, or just makes you feel totally unsexy and far from horny. And sometimes, you don’t realize the reaction you’ll have to something until it’s already happening. 

How do you talk about your triggers?

Because “I’m triggered” is often used as a joke, it’s hard to find the appropriate way to talk about it. You want to make everyone feel empowered and comfortable. So rather than literally saying “trigger,” there are tons of ways to talk about feelings of anxiety in sex.

The best way to be sensitive to triggers is to talk about them before having sex. You don’t have to sit there and literally say, “what makes you triggered?” But forming conversations about what you’re both into helps everyone get on the same page. 

Before Sex

Yes/No/Maybe lists: Talk to your partner about what they’re definitely into, definitely not into, and perhaps willing to try if the conditions are right. This lets you know what things are completely off limits. Get clear on what parts of their body they like to talk about. 

Talk about talking: You may think nothing of calling your partner “thick” but it may send them into a spiral of negative body thoughts. Ask what words they like to be called. Ask what words they use for their own body parts (trans/gender non-conforming people may have words they like to use.) Get clear on your verbal boundaries. 

Feel it out: Sometimes people don’t know what they want from sex in terms of positions or moves but they know how they want to feel. By asking your partner “how do you want to feel?”, you can understand what they need in a moment. Maybe they want to feel secure and held, maybe they want to feel naught and punished. Get clear on this before diving in. 

During Sex

Safe words: Establish a word or phrase with your partner that means “Stop” or “slow down” that either of you can say when something isn’t feeling right.

Non-verbal cues: Sometimes it can be challenging to articulate your discomfort in the moment. Non-verbal cues, like tapping their shoulder or holding up a “peace” sign can signal that you need to slow down.

After Sex

How was that for you?: Though the minute after sex you may just want to cuddle, talking about sex or debriefing a bit can help you both understand where the other person is at. If something triggering came up for you and you didn’t really realize it, talk it out! 

Next time: If you know that a certain word or position or anything didn’t feel right for you, tell your partner that next time you want to try something else. Focusing on what you can do next time can take the blame off of what was “wrong” or “bad” in the present. 

Know your needs: This is easier said than done and may be learned over time, but establishing what helps you when you’re triggered can get you and your partner back on track. Do you need a hug? Do you need to not be touched? Think about what you need and incorporate it into your sex life.

At the end of the day, knowing your triggers is an asset to your mental and sexual health. Don’t be afraid to learn more about them—you’ll be glad you did.

Griffin Wynne is a non-binary writer, artist, and plain seltzer drinker. When they’re not discussing sex in the ~digital era~ or crying to the Dixie Chicks, Griffin enjoys camping, reading, used clothes, and documentaries about cults. They’re a Capricorn King, a genderless cowgirl, and a ’70s mama who is always down for dollar oysters and road trips. Griffin uses they/them pronouns and has the same birthday as Kyle Richards.