What it REALLY Means to be “Triggered”

If you’ve been on the Internet for any amount of time, chances are you have encountered the word “triggered,” or have seen a “trigger warning.” It became a meme, but as many things often unfortunately do, it was then turned into a disqualifying phrase. To say someone has been “triggered” has been synonymous with calling someone overemotional, their responses overdone, and designating what they have to say as less-than because they responded in a certain way. It has also been used to mean someone strongly disagrees with a stance. I have seen this most often used against the discussion of social issues, namely feminism. Because of course, “overemotional” responses can be disqualified as valid right out of the gate, right?

As someone who has struggled with mental illness–as well as someone who has known sufferers of mental illnesses–I started using this word about six or seven years ago, and it wasn’t meant to disqualify a position or a person. Me and other sufferers I’ve known have used it to alert someone to our mental state, which could mean the difference between a good mental day and a bad mental day. It could even go unsaid verbally, but there would often be clear nonverbal signals that let other people know, “I’m not okay.” Likewise, “trigger warnings” have been used to alert people with certain stressors to avoid content in order to not experience undesired symptoms.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s take a look around, shall we?

In an article written by Gillian Brown in 2015, triggering “occurs when any certain something…causes a negative emotional response. The emotional response can be fear, sadness, panic, flashbacks, and pain, as well as any physical symptoms associated with these emotions…” (source link). Brown goes on to say that a trigger can be absolutely anything and can happen for no reason at all, but maintains that a trigger reminds the sufferer of a traumatic event. In an article put out by PsychCentral, “the senses identified as being the most common to trigger someone are sight ad sound, followed by touch and smell, and taste close behind,” and allows for combinations in certain situations (source link).Think of the times when you listen to a certain song and your body has a positive or a negative reaction–you may smile, or you may feel hopelessly sad. A trigger is more negative in nature, and brings about the aforementioned host of unpleasant symptoms associated with something you experienced in the past (and reactions can often be worse than just feeling sad). If you’ve ever heard of a “Vietnam flashback” (something that has also, for some reason, been made funny for the sake of a meme), this goes along those lines.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), one idea for the cause of this condition is that it happens “when you are confronted with a traumatic event, and your mind is not able to process all the thoughts and feelings as it usually does,” and also says that you can develop PTSD by witnessing a traumatic event (source link). This means something doesn’t even have to directly happen to you in order to experiences symptoms of PTSD. All that is required is an experience of a traumatic event that leaves an impression. This page also lists a variety of symptoms, but also dictates that certain groups of people may be more at risk of developing PTSD, including but not limited to people with a history of abuse, depression, and veterans.

When you see a trigger warning, it isn’t always meant as, “Don’t agree with me? Then you won’t like this article,” or some similar sentiment. Have you ever been watching the news and heard the news anchor warn you that certain spoken details and/or pictures may be disturbing to some viewers? This is a version of a trigger warning. In an article written by Steve Williams in 2014, he provided an example of why trigger warnings are useful:

“To give an example, most people would probably be affected by a television storyline about someone self-harming because of unresolved emotional or psychological issues. It’s natural to feel distressed about this. However, for someone who has those mental health issues themselves, there is a danger that they may then be ‘triggered’ into self-harming, particularly if the storyline is graphic in how it depicts the self-abuse.” (source link)

However, Williams does state that “some people who suffer PTSD or other mental health problems do not find trigger warnings helpful,” stating that some people may use the search terms “trigger warnings” with the explicit intent of finding content that will be triggering to them. He explains that sometimes the presence of an “obsessive compulsive need” in a sufferer, or the desire to punish themselves, turns trigger warnings into quick avenues for searching out harmful material. It does bear repeating that trigger warnings can help sufferers avoid setbacks and relapses by identifying potentially triggering content, but they may not be an easy fix for all sufferers.

In March 2011, I experienced a traumatic event in which I was unsure if the person I was interacting with was going to harm themselves and/or kill themselves. I never had experienced anything like that before, and after the event, my already present anxiety levels went through the roof. I can’t remember if I had sleeping nightmares, but if I experienced something that made me remember that night, I would be mentally transported back to the place where it happened. I could be in a building far away from the scene, and yet in those moments I thought I was there–in the moments leading up to, as well as during the event. It was all crystal clear for me, as if time had not progressed past the event in question. One of my triggers was holding my hands in a certain way in front of me–I couldn’t do that without the memories flooding back. You can only imagine how it would have felt for me to operate a shopping cart during this time. Since I had to still interact with the person involved, I would of course remember what had happened every time I saw them. However, it even got to the point where hearing their name set of the chain of unpleasant symptoms.

During the next month, my depression worsened, and for the first time I understood what all the prescription commercials meant by being so depressed I couldn’t physically get out of bed. What really didn’t help was my habit of revisiting the event in a fairly neutral way to figure out if I could have done anything different. My mind was able to conjure a number of other solutions that could have brought about a more positive end, and I would berate myself for not having thought of any of them when I really needed to. The university I was going to felt more like a prison where I was forced to relive that single event, and the trauma ultimately served as one decision for why I withdrew from university after just a year.Even after I left the school, though, it didn’t stop. At one movie premiere back in my hometown, I saw someone with a distinctive hairstyle that resembled how the person in my event wore their hair. I didn’t break down like I might have in March or April 2011, but I still felt ill at ease, even frightened. However, being home did help a little bit, namely with the change of scenery and being able to see old friends again.

I understand that the world isn’t a kind place, no matter how much we wish it could be. I have heard the criticisms about trigger warnings, saying that they’re a way of pillowing college students instead of toughening them up. I argue that there is a distinct difference between disagreement and what it actually means to be “triggered,” though. Even though there’s no way to shield a sufferer from their triggers, and improvement can be achieved through learning to live despite the memories, not every person is ready to do that at the same time. I think of myself and my friends who struggle with mental illness every time someone says I’ve been triggered because of a contrasting opinion. Make no mistake, I love a good debate. However, if you incorporate the word “triggered” as a way to disqualify what I have to say, I have serious problems. If we’re not talking about my history of mental illness or ways you can help me out, I despise the word used in the popular context.

My call to action is simple: Consider what I have told you personally, as well as the information I’ve gathered, but also reach out and consider people in your own life who struggle with mental illness. They may not even know what it means to be “triggered,” even if they experience the signs firsthand. They may feel like their struggles are stigmatized and devalued because of how the word is now so commonly used. Ask if there is any way you can help when they feel like relapse is on the horizon. And please, please consider your word choices, especially when participating in potentially heated encounters with others. Yes, you have a point to make, but please make it in a way that acknowledges you’re communicating with another human being.


Brown, G. (2015, June 7).Not sure what people mean by ‘triggering?’ This article is your one-stop 101. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/guide-to-triggering/ .

University of Maryland Medical Center. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved from http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/posttraumatic-stress-disorder .

Sexual Assault Centre, U. (2016) What is a trigger?. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-a-trigger/

Williams, S. (2014, September 9). What does ‘triggering’ actually mean for mental illness?. Retrieved from http://www.care2.com/causes/what-does-triggering-actually-mean-for-mental-illness.html .




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