One of the most popular buzzwords of our times is the word “trigger.” The word itself means “to release or activate” by means of a trigger, but in mental health this is referred to as a prompt that causes a person to experience extreme distress or anxiety. Usually, this is caused by the presence of something specific that has caused trauma in the past, or through stimulating thought patterns that cause anxiety. For those of us who have suffered trauma, triggers might cause us to feel as if we’re experiencing the trauma all over again. If you know someone who has these kinds of psychological triggers, you know that this is no joking matter. An example of someone who gets triggered is a person who has witnessed a distressing event (like a car crash) and who experiences a panic attack when a trigger (like a sound of siren) is present even long after the event. Most triggers come with a strong sensory connection such as sound or sight or smell.
The idea that something can cause a person to actually relive a situation that caused psychological damage is quite powerful—a person who gets triggered can experience tangible pain, paralysis, muscle tension, breathing difficulties, or intense feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or anger. A trigger can be a person, place, word, a specific situation, or a combination of any of these. Psychologists refer to those as “external” triggers. An “internal” trigger comes from within and it’s usually an emotion or a memory that can sometimes cause a person to spiral back into trauma.
As you’ve probably noticed, many more controversial movies, books, or works of art come with Trigger Warnings these days—the idea behind this is that people who might experience distress have a choice to engage or not with a potential trigger. Watching a movie can be quite an emotional experience, and people who have suffered trauma might need those kinds of warnings in order to feel safe within the event of watching a movie. On the other hand, “This movie was so traumatizing” has become one of those remarks that we easily throw around—but most of us don’t actually get triggered to the point of re-experiencing trauma. What we do experience, however, is getting offended (provoked, challenged, stimulated, etc.). Getting offended, similarly to getting triggered, can cause a person to get angry and upset (get “their blood to boil”) but unlike actual, genuine situations where a trigger causes real psychological distress, getting offended ends there. Similarly, feeling triggered because you presume someone is attacking your beliefs (directly and/or on social media) should probably be in the category of “offended.”
The reason “trigger” has become a buzzword is because, like all buzzwords, it’s a word that is grossly overused (think of the pandemic favorite “pivot”—a word that probably belongs in basketball and engineering more than it does anywhere else, but now we see it even when discussing a change of plans or outfits). And like any overused word, it is perhaps losing its significance and meaning—suddenly when something or someone disagrees with you, and that causes you to feel a strong emotion, this is now being compared to a serious psychological occurrence.
We are bombarded by upsetting information and misinformation all the time. When you open your Facebook or your Netflix account or even a book, there lies a strong potential that something you will come across will upset you. From research we know that brains tend to store traumatic memories differently, and some of those events cause the body and the psyche to replay/ relive past trauma in the way that causes a flight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response) such as trembling, rapid heartbeat, and shallow breathing. You could argue that an upsetting Facebook post or a scene from a movie that causes you to react is triggering, but chances are you are not experiencing a real trauma response. Actual triggers make you feel as if your heart was about to beat right out of your chest—feeling offended can probably cause you to feel discomfort, but not in the way that it would warrant an intervention of a health professional the way actual stress response would.
I am all for feeling safe and non-threatened. At the same time, the reality often is that, with all that information coming at us, and with all kinds of upsetting stimuli, we need to step back a bit and consider what the real dangers are. Overusing “trigger” and exaggerating our unpleasant reactions and classifying them as traumatic just because they are uncomfortable can unintendedly render us incapable of handling everyday situations, especially in today’s contentious world. And they can often marginalize the actual experiences of those who feel distress that causes them psychological harm. If you find yourself in a situation where you might feel attacked or that you know will upset you, don’t reach for the readily available “trigger” and slap it onto the situation—consider that what you’re going through may be a discrepancy in opinion and/or belief that, though it may feel very personal, is much more about the character of the person or persons doing the judging or criticizing. Their thoughts and behaviors do not define you. You’re in control of the situation and have the power to disengage from the interaction, or, better yet, channeling your energy engaging in something meaningful to you.