Buzzwords come and go, and very often they come about because of a cultural shift. Mental health awareness has been slowly growing over the years, and with it, discussions about anxiety, depression, and trauma have become much more prevalent. The first time I heard the word ‘triggered’ referring to a state of being rather than a past tense verb, I was reading a book about trauma. It was discussing PTSD in veterans that had returned home, describing how loud sounds or flashes of light might reignite, or trigger, emotional and physical reactions similar to what they had experienced in the face of gunfire or explosions in battle.

   Not only veterans experience PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder describes a pervasive re-experiencing of a traumatic event. It can result from car accidents, child abuse, physical assaults, rape or other events that cause a person terror. In general, when symptoms after a traumatic event last longer than a month, it is considered PTSD.

What does triggering mean?

   A person who may be dealing with PTSD might experience a dramatic and instantaneous increase in post-traumatic symptoms when they come across reminders of their initial traumatic experience, clicking their brain chemistry into a fight-or-flight or freeze response. Elevated heart rate and body temperature, digestive system issues, fear, anxiety, anger, or grief might emerge, and some or all of these symptoms can last for days, disrupting eating and sleeping habits. As a result, a person dealing with triggered PTSD might appear irritable, upset, hyper-vigilant, defensive, apathetic, or unusually reclusive.

So what does it mean when you see something posted online that says “trigger warning”?

This is usually an attempt from the author or re-poster that their content is of a graphic nature, warning others that they might be reminded of a traumatic event and giving them a heads up to avoid it if they wish. Some people will chose to read on anyway, and others will chose not to, but either way they won’t be caught off guard.

   When applied appropriately, I appreciate this gesture. However there are always internet trolls. I’ve seen countless random commenters on various online platforms using the word ‘triggering’ pejoratively, insinuating that anybody who might be triggered is just a big baby, and #triggerwarning has been used too many times as a tongue-in-cheek jab at what some deem to be behavior that is oversensitive. This behavior is disrespectful and offensive, which brings me to my next point.

Is anybody that gets upset about something necessarily triggered?

   No, absolutely not. A lot of times they are simply offended and acting as such. For example, “You know it really triggers me when you say ‘Happy Holidays’, because I like Christmas and I think you should honor it”, that is incorrect usage. They are simply feeling offended and misusing a term, maliciously or not.

   The interchanging of these words is problematic, because not only does it devalue and mock those who actually experience triggerable PTSD symptoms, it equates the experience to any other emotion that comes and goes easily and naturally. I’ve seen it too often used as a way to mock those that are actually reacting from a triggered place as a way to downplay or silence their trauma, as in the case of sexual assault. This gets into victim-blaming territory, and can exacerbate the anxiety and shame a person with PTSD might already be feeling. These are obviously inappropriate and unacceptable ways to talk about a very real and disturbing psychological experience, and it is unfortunate that misuse and misinformation have perpetuated suffering in trauma survivors.

What can you do to avoid triggering others?

   If you know of a friend who has been through something traumatic, avoid randomly mentioning something pertaining to that event, unless they’ve expressed that they’re ok with it. If you’re unsure, approach your friend when they’re in a relaxed state, and open conversation with interest. Give them an out if they don’t want to talk about it. If you’re posting content online that might be disturbing or graphic in nature, be sure to offer up a trigger warning to others by simply saying “This post may have content that is disturbing for some”.

   Anybody can become offended by something, and they have a right to speak up about it. Avoid the temptation to engage in put-downs by dismissing an offended person by saying they are triggered. Put simply, don’t interchange these two terms. For cultural knowledge to expand, we must all take the right steps to approach subjects like these with understanding, an interest in expanding our knowledge, and a willingness to change our behavior.