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We Need to Stop Misusing the Word 'Triggered'


“Trigger warning.”

“Watch out, snowflakes about to be triggered.”

“Sorry, didn’t meant to trigger you.”

Go on any social media platform or news article and you’re likely to see the word “trigger” used in some capacity. I seem to run into it the most when it’s being used in a derogatory sense, an insult used to disparage people who don’t agree with the author’s viewpoint or who make an appeal to compassion. Feeling “triggered” seems to be the newest version of feeling offended and the new way to mock someone’s lack of constitution. But here’s the thing: it needs to stop.

In the new colloquial sense being “triggered” means a relatively minor thing, akin to being upset or sad or disgusted. When used as an insult, it’s meant to be synonymous with being weak, sensitive or easily upset. But being actually triggered in the mental health sense is very serious and can have devastating effects on people’s lives. Is it funny to see a soldier with PTSD get triggered? How funny would it be to watch someone dissociate and be trapped in a flashback? Or to see them be overwhelmed by emotion and need a large amount of time and coping skills to come down and feel normal? How hilarious. Not.

It’s difficult to truly understand an experience until you’ve had it yourself, no matter how empathetic you are trying to be. As someone in the mental health field (I was in my grad school practicum when this happened) I understood triggers as a concept and as a factor in my client’s lives, but had never experienced it myself. That is, until I had to respond to a midnight call that a friend was in a physical and emotional crisis. The friend had been self-harming and had almost wrecked their car and was drunk and inconsolable. They was blood and screaming and it was a really rough night for everyone involved. Fast forward a month or so and my friend unknowingly started making a repetitive motion that they’d been doing that night and it immediately triggered me. I felt the same fear, unease, and surreal-ness that I’d experienced throughout the night of the incident. Something as small as a gesture, done in the safety of my home, took my mind and my body right back to that place. Imagine if someone had experienced a more severe trauma, or lived in a less stable environment, or any other number of factors that could make their situation much worse than mine.

So, why does it matter? What does the casual use of the word have to do with the actual phenomenon? Well, I’m glad you asked. All words have a dictionary definition (called a denotation) but we don’t always use them as defined. Take “literally” for example — many people use it to express feeling strongly about something or to emphasize the way they feel. Example: I “literally” can’t study any more. Well, sure you can, a person can always study more. So, we have the common usage and the dictionary definition. We also have the affect associated with a word (called connotation) that governs whether we think of something positively or negatively. Take, for instance, the way that we refer to individuals with intellectual disabilities. The R-word used to be the preferred terminology, but the word began being used colloquially as an insult and is now considered to be offensive. Over time, a term with a very specific clinical meaning had its connotation and denotation changed. Furthermore, when a word’s common meaning is changed the phenomenon that it is associated with can be looked upon differently as well.

Given all of this, I think it’s important that we use “triggered” to mean a very specific thing. The word, and the concept, have real impacts on people’s lives and give them a way to share their experience with others. We shouldn’t mock it, we shouldn’t use it as an insult and we shouldn’t pretend it isn’t serious.

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Unsplash photo via Keagan Henman