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What to Know When Someone Says ‘I’m Triggered’


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I have a very robust sense of humor, and indeed a very dark one. I often joke with my husband and the tiny handful of friends who know the full truth of my traumatic and abusive childhood about just how absurdly terrible it all was. I say having a tragic backstory makes me a superhero and I paraphrase Oscar Wilde: “to have one parent abandon you is a tragedy; to have two is carelessness.” However, I also have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or more precisely complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) which is caused by traumatic situations from which the victim has no hope of escape; for example, kidnapping or child abuse.

My C-PTSD has a range of delightful (read: awful) symptoms, such as night terrors, hypervigilance and paranoia. And like regular PTSD, it also sets off flashbacks when something triggers me. Now, “being triggered” is a phrase that has become misused by many people, sometimes for political rhetoric, sometimes out of ignorance. Just like people say “I’m depressed” when they mean they are sad, when they say “I’m triggered,” they mean they are offended or angered by material in the media. The truth is being triggered for people living with PTSD has nothing to do with taking offense.

Being triggered when you have PTSD is like experiencing an intense allergy. If someone with a shellfish allergy accidentally eats an oyster, they have an immediate and intense physical reaction they cannot control. They may enjoy the taste of oysters, but the reaction will still happen. I watched a member of my husband’s family jump out of the car to throw up because she ate the wrong thing at a cafe. When my PTSD is triggered it is much the same, and it happened to me very recently.

My husband was playing a silly video online, based on very adult humor with lots of swearing and sexual references… and I was fine. I found it fairly funny if a bit simplistic. Then, they made a series of jokes about sexual abuse. Five minutes later, I was having a panic attack in the bathroom. I couldn’t stop crying, I felt frightened and angry, I felt like I was an abused child again; the trauma replayed not only in my head but in my whole emotional state. I finally got things back under control with breathing techniques and self-talk.

My poor husband was, of course, distraught to have caused me pain, but he didn’t do anything wrong and neither did the producers of the video. I abhor censorship; their humor might be unpleasant but they have a right to make whatever jokes they want. On the other hand, I cannot control the reaction I have to those jokes. Being triggered does not mean I am offended; it is the mental health equivalent to an allergy — involuntary and dangerous.

Having PTSD is not something anyone chooses. It is particularly cruel because it makes the victim relive the trauma they thought they had escaped from. Being triggered is the worst aspect of the condition and I hope this analogy might be useful to use the next time someone suggests “there is no need to get so upset” about material in the media. One of the things I told myself as I stood in the bathroom was that this reaction was not my fault. It was not weakness or fragility of the mind; it was a reaction to reliving trauma. It is not too much to ask to minimize the number of times we have to go through that pain.

Photo by Adrian Infernus on Unsplash