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Am I Triggered or Is This a Red Flag?

I get this question a lot.

The most common answer I give? It depends.

It really does. It depends on a lot of things, and it takes time for each of us to fine tune our flag sensor and confidently determine whether what’s happening is cool or not.

With that, I also have some perspective that might help you land on the right answer for you.

Implicit Memory

Perhaps one of the best questions we can ask ourselves when we’re trying to decide if we’re triggered is this: is this familiar?

When we explore whether something feels familiar we are exploring the possibility that what we are feeling is a memory.

Now, the memory might not be a vivid one. Memories aren’t only the images we can see in our minds and dreams. Memories can also show up as familiar feelings, sensations, smells, behaviors, and more. These less conscious memories are called implicit memories.

Implicit memories are like slivers of memory. They lack the depth and chronology that often come with our conscious memories (also called explicit memories).

Implicit memories aren’t necessarily related to trauma. They can be positive, like recognizing the smell of a family meal.

Implicit memories that are triggers often bring a sense of overwhelm or urgency, so you might feel compelled to do something to mitigate the situation ASAP. If it’s possible, though, it can be helpful to pause first. This will protect the space you need to explore what you’re feeling and seek support if necessary.


Beyond exploring the familiarity of the feeling, it’s important to discern whether the environment you're in is safe or unsafe, or safe enough.

First it's important to note that relationships, even the good ones, can be triggering. This is because they pull at all of our insecurities, past experiences, hopes and dreams, and more.

And when we live with the impacts of traumatic stress, sometimes our gut sense gets confused.

You might be drawn to things that are actually unsafe for you (e.g. drugs, risky sexual behaviors, people you know don’t meet your expectations for partnership) and/or you might find things that are objectively safe, triggering.

In many ways, connection can incite pain forward because it draws us out of dissociation and isolation.

So accurately assessing our level of safety, and feeling confident about our ability to do so, can take time and practice. Especially when we're living with the impacts of traumatic stress.


Think of safe enough as the zone in which you feel uncomfortable, maybe even concerned, but capable of seeing it through.

You can ask yourself: Do I feel capable of taking this on? Do I have the means to remove myself from the situation easily if I do sense danger?

Essentially, you're asking yourself about whether you have choices and what they are.

When you're in the 'safe enough' zone your body is - and should be - actively assessing the situation. But what's helpful, if possible, is to work on being in that zone from a grounded and aware space. This can be difficult because the possibility of danger naturally pulls our body into a defensive state.

The difference in the safe enough zone is that you are hopefully aware of your choices. Among those choices might be your interest in assessing for the possibility of danger and the possibility of something more positive - joy, love, connection.


One of the best ways to check in with yourself about your choices in a situation is to literally pause, ground yourself, and think about it.

For some this might look like closing your eyes to check in - yes, even if you are with someone else. You can say, "give me a moment to think about that" or, "hold on, let me gather my thoughts."

You can also remove yourself from the situation. My favorite getaway is the bathroom. Excuse yourself and take the time you need before returning.

If the environment you’re in or the person/people you’re with don’t allow you that space or time, they question you or pressure you, they are encroaching on your choices; you very well might be dealing with a red flag. This kind of data confirms that your boundaries aren’t being respected.

As you build a practice of checking in with yourself, you’ll build more understanding around whether particular relationships feel safe, unsafe, or safe enough.

So...which is it?

Still wondering what your gut is trying to tell you? I created a visual to help you explore the answer to your question, but because this is highly generalized it is extremely hypothetical. Keep in mind that this table represents what might be the experience of someone who's safety/danger signals are mostly consistent with what's really happening. When we live with trauma, our signals aren't always so straight forward.

Along the top of the table you'll see the first question addressed in this blog: is this familiar? And along the left side you'll see the second question addressed in the blog: am I safe, safe enough, or unsafe?

Inside the table you can explore hypotheses for the answer to the ultimate question: is this a red flag or am I triggered?

Notice how the hypothesis for unsafe + familiar gives possibility that your experience is both a red flag and a trigger. This speaks to how our past trauma can beneficially inform how we assess a situation.

While we love a simple visual, at the end of the day I want to normalize that this is likely a question we will all ask of ourselves throughout our entire lives. There is nothing wrong with you if you are curious or confused about these things.

Relationships are critical to our survival and they also invoke our deepest insecurities! Sometimes the best we can do is commit to ourselves over and over again.


Whether it’s a red flag or you’re triggered, your emotions matter! If you’re healing from traumatic experiences, you need extra cushy space to sort through your discomfort and build safety back into your body. Healthy relationships have space for discomfort.

One of the best resources we have in our healing is other people. Don’t be afraid to call trusted friends and family in to help you process your experience. You can ask them: Hey, does this seem off to you?

If you don’t have trusted friends and family - and even if you do - therapy is a great space to explore your emotions and game plan for how to deal with both red flags and triggers.


Feel like you need more information about taking care of yourself in relationships? Consider purchasing my workshop replay Your Nervous System & Your Relationship or download my free Conflict and Connection E-Guide.

Another resource I can't recommend enough is the Yes-to-No Spectrum by Consent Wizardry. They have some amazing (and beautiful) digital resources on consent from a somatic perspective.

Want one-on-one support so you can build the relationships you've always dreamed of?

Schedule a FREE consultation with me using the button below.


Photo by Karolina Grabowska:

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