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The Difference Between Being Triggered and Overwhelmed

“Trigger Warning…”

Lately, many videos, articles and other media are prefaced with these words. They are intended to alert those with trauma histories and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to potentially disturbing content. However, their use has sparked not only a debate as to their efficacy and necessity, but a co-opting of the term “trigger” to describe being overwhelmed by something. As a survivor of sexual and emotional abuse who struggles with PTSD, I get discouraged when those who don’t have trauma histories use the term “trigger” in a flippant manner. 

Part of the experience of being human is to have a full range of emotions, including being overwhelmed. These emotions are neurotypical and instructive. They allow us to make informed decisions as to our behavior and they solidify our values. I think it’s safe to say that most people right now are feeling overwhelmed by COVID-19 and this is causing widespread anxiety, hopelessness, despair and fear. But, this sense of being overwhelmed is not the same as being “triggered,” which by definition is the experience of having feelings associated with past trauma that are sparked by current stimuli which can include things like smells or sounds. The key differentiating factor between the two is that of time.

Overwhelm occurs in the present and is a reaction to a current event. A “trigger” is sparked by something that occurs in the present, but the reaction and response references a trauma that occurred in the past that has caused deep psychological pain. Once triggered, the traumatized individual is no longer reacting to the current situation, but rather is transported to the moment of their past trauma. As a result, the individual will often end up experiencing flashbacks and somatic symptoms which essentially feel as though they are re-experiencing that traumatic event from the past in the moment. This can re-traumatize the individual and exacerbate their PTSD symptoms ranging from intrusive thoughts and nightmares to dissociation and self-harming tendencies.

Another important distinction between being overwhelmed and being “triggered” is that the “trigger” may be something that to anyone else may appear completely innocuous. I’ll use myself as an example for this, because my “triggers” are often sense oriented and tend to be things most others don’t think twice about. I have an intense response to the smell of men’s cologne because it reminds me of my abuser. What others may actually find stimulating makes me completely freeze and dissociate. The same occurs when it comes to anything on my skin, like sunscreen, make up, lotion or hair products. These “triggers” activate my fight/flight/freeze response, sending me into hypervigilance and flooding my body with cortisol. I seize up, can’t move, am overcome with disgust and cannot function. This occurs completely involuntarily, as though my body and mind are being hijacked by a foreign entity. 

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As is evident, being overwhelmed isn’t the same as being “triggered” even though an important aspect of being “triggered” involves an extreme sense of being overwhelmed. It is crucial to note that we are all products of our upbringing which includes both our genetics and our lived experiences, therefore our behavior in the present is always informed by our past. What separates someone who is overwhelmed from someone who is “triggered” is trauma and the degree to which that trauma has had lingering and debilitating effects on ones life. 

It is for this reason that “trigger warnings” are useful and necessary. They offer the trauma survivor an opportunity to opt out of putting themselves in a situation where they may become re-traumatized. It gives them the ability to control something that otherwise can feel out of control, which is a powerful aspect to healing from trauma. Promoting the understanding of the ways in which post-traumatic stress can be debilitating to trauma survivors is the first step toward de-stigmatizing PTSD.

When we suggest not utilizing language that is specific to a mental health diagnosis in colloquial terms, it is not to shame anyone — it is simply to educate those who thankfully do not struggle with these diagnoses as to the ways in which the symptoms of these mental health struggles can be truly life-altering and debilitating. Words do matter and being respectful of not using these words out of context shows those who are afflicted with these diagnoses that they are believed, respected and cared for.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

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