Let’s Talk About What a Trauma Trigger Actually Is

Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash.

The overuse of “triggered” incorrectly is worsening mental health crises for people with PTSD

Thanks to way too many bad-faith actors online and off, the important psychological term of “triggered” as relates to trauma and PTSD has had its actual meaning twisted almost past recognition. Getting upset because someone doesn’t agree with you or they say something that offends you is categorically not getting triggered.

Trauma triggers are specific to people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which occurs after surviving a violent incident in which you thought you were going to die or almost did. This includes people who have survived combat, war, sexual assault, gun violence, domestic violence, other kinds of abuse like hate crimes, natural disasters, and more. A trigger is something a traumatized person sees, hears, or reads that re-opens their traumatic incident in a huge way.

Being triggered looks and feels like this

Time slips sideways and you are back in that exact moment of the traumatic incident as if it was actually happening again. The flashbacks to those moments can be so vivid it’s like a hallucination and you might feel like you’re losing your mind.

Your heart starts pounding (or palpitating) and it becomes hard to breathe.

It’s disorienting as you’re in two places at once and neither is safe. Your pupils dilate from flight/fight/freeze response and you get dizzy.

Some people get tunnel vision. Some people get stomach pain from the massive adrenaline burst they are receiving. Some have a full-blown panic attack. Your body has involuntary and uncontrollable physical responses like shaking or spontaneous weeping.

Being triggered wakes up big emotions on the entire spectrum, from sorrow and grief to extreme rage.

Sometimes you actually wish you would die — or had actually died during the incident that gave you PTSD—just so this horrible feeling of reliving one of the worst days of your life will stop.

It’s a grotesque and violent out-of-body experience that can then lead to new problems like a heart attack, hives, IBS, or other health-related flare-ups. The emotional and physical side effects can last for days.

Getting regularly triggered can affect one’s personal relationships, job, and even the ability to perform basic human tasks like leave the house to go to the store or meet other obligations that might have been easy before the traumatic incident that rewired your brain for worse.

Triggers are not a punchline

Triggers are not funny and they are the furthest thing from a joke. Of course there are levels to the experience of being triggered, from mild to extreme, and if someone has trusted you enough to tell you about their traumatic incident(s) it’s with the hope that you can be a safe place for them to be around and actually enjoy their life without worrying about an accidental emotional breakdown. Unfortunately, most PTSD sufferers will end up building their lives around the trauma, cultivating buffers so we can feel protected and not have these kinds of events happen in public, which is mortifying by itself even without bringing the original trauma into it.

However, there is a growing “fuck your feelings” crowd on all sides of socio-cultural spectrums that would like people to believe that triggers are the bearer’s responsibility. By all means, if you’re a dickhead and enjoy causing others emotional pain, go ahead and say things to trigger traumatized people on purpose. Thanks to this hateful crew, as someone diagnosed with PTSD in 2000 after surviving the gun crime that took the life of one of my best friends, by now I’ve even stopped using the word “triggered” altogether to describe what happens to me because of how misused the word has become. These days I say “provoked” so as to avoid the backlash that now comes with “triggered” since its medical meaning has been mangled almost beyond recognition.

But here’s the thing: If you care about others, and in particular the people healing from trauma close to you, then it shouldn’t be a big deal to listen and respect their boundaries and experiences. If you are aware of their triggers and how serious they are, why would it even occur to you to disregard them just because you want to say whatever you want? Why would you want to hurt someone on purpose even if it’s “just” words? Why wouldn’t you take other people into account as you interact with them?

I feel like we are here on earth to be excellent to each other, and not triggering someone who is already dealing with a lot of heavy shit is a good way to start. Also, it’s really not that hard to have respect for others, you know, simply because it’s a kind thing to do.

If you’re using the word “triggered” to refer to any old thing or person that isn’t agreeing with you, just stop. At least pretend to be a decent human being in this very small way.