Note: While I did not intentionally write anything explicit, please be aware that some content is about post traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, and eating disorders.
On April 3, 2017 at 11:10 am, the infamous website Buzzfeed tweeted their latest article of great controversy. Much to the chagrin of myself and many other Twitter users, it used the word triggered to describe people who became upset over something offensive, i.e. content of a different opinion that they didn’t find valid or acceptable. Want to know what was offensive enough to supposedly “trigger” people into rants even a toddler would fine unreasonable? Pizza.
That’s right, some innocent man was carrying his order of pizza wrong. Maybe I’m the only one, but last I checked, people can carry their food however they very well please. Oh, and this isn’t a trigger. At all.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who read this tweet with great disappointment, as displayed by these individuals:
In essence, this blog post is dedicated to Buzzfeed and anyone else who has, either knowingly or unknowingly, undermined the importance of words/phrases like trigger, triggered, and trigger warnings within the mental health community.
Shall we begin?
- Point #1: A trigger isn’t just something that people may find upsetting or offensive.
Much like the tweets shown above, Eleanor Amaranth Lockhart explains that “in post-traumatic stress and other mental conditions in which a person has suffered trauma, ‘a trigger is something which causes instant distress in a vulnerable person.’ (60)”
On top of that, a reaction of distress isn’t always purely psychological, and this is especially so for sufferers of PTSD and/or trauma:
“Physiologically, trauma raises the levels of certain chemicals in the body and thereby puts the body system into high alert, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response . . . When the body is activated in this way, high cortisol levels course through the body, making it hard to process information, eat, sleep, be sexually aroused, and even salivate. Ideally, after a time, when the threat has passed, the very same cortisol should shut down the fight-or-flight response. Unfortunately, in PTSD the cortisol fails to shut down the body’s fight or flight response, leading to ongoing activation. (Helsel, 683)”
If you think so-and-so is “triggered” based off of the way they’re responding to a meme on Twitter, they’re not triggered, they’re annoyed. When an individual is faced with something that triggers them, it’s not a man’s carry-out pizza, and their reaction isn’t to rant about it on Twitter because Buzzfeed did, too.
- Point #2: Every time you misuse trigger, triggered, or trigger warning on social media as a joke, you are hurting the mental health community and the progress we’ve made.
As written in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychological Association, Fifth Edition), “Psychological distress following exposure to a traumatic or stressful event is quite variable. In some cases, symptoms can be well understood within an anxiety- or fear-based context. (265)”
Anxiety and fear. These are the symptoms of someone in need of help, not someone who feels left out. When social media uses #trigger as a joke or to describe someone who took things personally, it derails the urgency of when someone says, “I just experienced something that triggered a panic attack (or any other type of reaction) and I need help.”
- Point #3: Not all triggers and trigger reactions are the same.
As stated in the above quote from the DSM-V manual, triggers largely involve the effect traumatic experiences have on people, but triggers can also involve other parts of mental disorders, leading to panic attacks, relapses, and returning thoughts or urges, including thoughts of suicide. I, and many people I know, have certain triggers that if we encounter them, have a hard time simply shaking them off and pretending nothing happened.
While there are multiple examples of what someone could experience when triggered, one example would be “A person suffering from trauma as a result of a sexual assault may be triggered by depictions of even an attempted sexual assault. (Lockhart, 60)”
I personally have a huge struggle with self-harm. I’ve been cutting on and off since I was 11 years old. I remember one particular movie I was watching with my family that, for me, was a trigger. There was a scene that showed a character cutting himself, and it was fairly graphic. My parents had unfortunately forgotten about that part and I ended up watching the short, but graphic scene. I don’t remember if I cut because of it (although I’m 96.4% sure I did), but I do remember it circulated my thoughts for a least a week.
One of my dearest friends has had a struggle with an eating disorder for a very long time. For her, numbers can be a trigger, often as calories, pounds, or quantities. There have been times when numbers filled her mind so much it became overwhelming, and she would have moments of relapse. Due to past traumas, the smell of weed also acts as a trigger for her, leading to moments of discomfort and panic.
While she isn’t diagnosed with PTSD (neither am I, for that matter), very real and very common things such as numbers and scents can be dangerous. For those of us with mental disorders and pasts filled with darkness and trials, triggers have a very real, yet misunderstood power over us.
In conclusion, please, please reconsider your usage of #triggered the next time you see someone overreacting because of pizza. Or anything else for that matter. If someone tells you they encountered something that may have been a trigger for them, help them. Be there for them. When their mind has become their enemy, when all they can think of is something that happened in the past, when the only thing they ache for is to return to the addiction they’ve fought for years, be their friend. Allow them the kindness and time you have to offer. For what it’s worth, the people who helped me when I was faced with a trigger, regardless of circumstances, are the people I owe my life to the most.
- American Psychiatric Association. “Trauma and Stress-Related Disorders.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington: American Psychiatric Association, 2013. 265. Print.
- Helsel, Philip. “Witnessing the Body’s Response to Trauma: Resistance, Ritual, and Nervous System Activation.” Pastoral Psychology, vol. 64, no. 5, Oct. 2015, pp. 681-693. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11089-014-0628-y.
- Lockhart, Eleanor Amaranth. “Why Trigger Warnings Are Beneficial, Perhaps Even Necessary.” First Amendment Studies, vol. 50, no. 2, Oct. 2016, pp. 59-69. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/21689725.2016.1232623.