Let’s talk about the word “triggered”.
I hear it constantly. Some teens are walking by a store they like, someone says they like the outfit on a mannequin, their friend says it’s ugly: “oh my god, triggered!”
Vines that turned into stories on Instagram or snapchat which end in a person being disgruntled: “Triggered!”
People trying to be funny or get the last word in on a twitter argument: “Triggered!”
Something went down at the staff meeting and get the following text: “Lowkey triggered rn. Meet for a smoke?”
But what does that word mean? Are there repercussions for using it colloquially? Is it a word we should be challenging our community’s use of?
The word trigger can be traced (as far as I can research) back to the early 1600's and the Dutch word trekker, to pull. Like a gun. Causes an explosion, or damage.
After the first world war, soldiers returned from the front lines – where they experienced catastrophic new technology in the form of advanced war machinery combined with old world techniques which caused massive casualties. Soldiers came back from the front and were diagnosed with war neurosis, or shell shock.
It wasn’t until after the 1970’s, after Vietnam Veterans had returned home from another war to American soil, when language that used the word “triggering” began to appear in conjunction with the newly-named Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), combining both the traditional definition of a gun’s trigger – the beginning of something wild, explosive, and dangerous – with mental health.
With the rise of fast media and the easy click of a mouse or tap on a screen to access news, sensitive material has been given trigger warnings, and that language has trickled down into daily parlance. As a teacher of teenagers, blog writer, and fashion photographer, I hear it everywhere. It never bothered me, honestly, and it slipped over my head a lot until I was talking to my therapist last week.
I’m a trauma survivor, with chronic anxiety and a panic disorder. I see a therapist weekly, and we, you know, talk about stuff.
Recently, for whatever reason, there have been a string of things that set me back what feels like years. Communication with my partner degraded to a dangerous point, my work suffered, and I held friends and family as far away as humanly possible. Trying to get to the bottom of what is clearly a wildly destructive phase of my otherwise reasonably held-together life, my therapist asked me: “Well, what are your triggers?”
She was not impressed when I responded with something like “People who don’t park correctly in parking lots, unwashed dishes, and overused memes.”
I’m now going through the process of figuring out my actual triggers – those events or stimulus that cause to regress, or react emotionally or unsafely. I’m also doing my research on what triggers can look like across the mental health community.
Triggers can force a person into a semblance of a survival state: fight, flight, or freeze. A triggered individual may be emotionally unavailable, mentally not present, or outwardly violent, depending on the stimuli or event that caused them to become triggered.
Things may happen that are not connected in any way to the original cause of a trigger, but the brain can turn these situations into similar events or stimuli.
So, even though my partner is really communicative and very non-threatening, when he touches me, if I am triggered, I can feel anything from revulsion to full blown panic, which lasts until I can calm down and put some distance between us.
Triggered individuals need to do the extremely challenging, and often times emotionally exhausting, mental work of devising response systems to triggers that keep us, and our community, safe. Triggers don’t come when we expect them, so we have to create systems we can’t “practice” effectively until we’re experiencing a triggered state, at which point there’s no guarantee that our mind will remember the list of responses we carefully crafted for “next time”.
Trigger warnings aren’t a joke, they’re not something that comes from a bad meeting with a boss or a stupid comment. For folks with trauma and trauma-derived disorders, triggers present a daily challenge, wherein the cost of being actually triggered and regressing, disassociation, or reacting emotionally can and often does create catastrophic results.
It’s challenging to talk to people about why words hold power, even as someone who talks about these things a lot in a wide variety of contexts.
But I do believe it is important to begin having this conversation. When someone says something is triggering, I want to pay attention and be cognizant of that in the future. I don’t want to wonder if it’s a joke, or have an actual trigger presented by media as something to laugh at.
In this new world, where individuals are working hard to bring conversations around mental, physical, and sexual health into the light, I think this is an important piece of that conversation to have.