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Triggers vs “Triggered”: Trauma Triggers and Modern Language Shifts

It’s normal to feel upset, anxious, or extremely uncomfortable when we encounter difficult content. Having a strong reaction to information that is generally considered troubling or difficult information is normal. Learning how to self-regulate (aka “calm down”) after being exposed to difficult content is part of normal emotional development.

 

Trauma triggers are different.

Trauma triggers aren’t getting upset about commonly-upsetting topics. Triggers can be sights, smells, a certain touch, a feeling, or sometimes- much more rarely- exposure to topical information. Trauma triggers often include a loss of a person’s sense of time, space, or “self.” When triggered, emotion is amplified OR completely muffled OR sometimes seemingly unrelated to the situation. Triggers are like a trap-door in the brain of a trauma survivor.

 

girl walking into a trapdoor

A person who is triggered usually has some awareness that they are unwell, but won’t recognize it as a trigger. If they are aware they are triggered, the individual is often confused about why they are triggered. The self-awareness to recognize being triggered while actively experiencing a trauma trigger, and the capacity to communicate about that state is generally a skill gained through effective trauma processing. Therapy, along with my educational worksheet on locating triggers, can be helpful to identify and process through trauma triggers.

 

printable infographic describing the difference between a trauma trigger and not a mental health trigger - but just an appropriately upsetting topic.

Troubling Topics and Triggers: A Venn Diagram

Collectively, we are using WAY more mental health language today than previous generations. Combined with a cultural familiarity with the DSM-5 (the psychological diagnosis manual) that would leave Freud in fascinated horror, it shouldn’t be surprising that many individuals tend to assign pathologizing words to reactions that are actually pretty healthy. I think it’s important to actually normalize getting really upset in response to things that should be really upsetting. That’s not pathology, it’s humanity.

 

printable infographic describing the difference between a trauma trigger and not a mental health trigger - but just an appropriately upsetting topic.
It’s important to normalize getting really upset in response to things that should be be really upsetting. That’s not pathology, it’s humanity.

The Semantics of the word “Trigger”

“Trigger” is a tricky word in our psych-savvy modern language. It feels familiar to most English speakers, so as we’re culturally starting to talk more about mental health, it’s not surprising that it’s a word that often gets used without an understanding of what “trigger” actually means in a mental health context. Here’s a doodle on the difference between something that causes emotional discomfort and a trauma trigger.

Some of the confusion over how to use the word “trigger” may be related to the semantics of “trigger” (as a generic verb) vs “Trigger” (as a specific clinical symptom). When we say “x triggers my anxiety” we’re actually not using the word in a mental health specific way – linguistically, it’s like saying “hitting that sales goal triggered my bonus”.

On the other hand, saying “I’m triggered” has a very specific, clinical meaning for trauma survivors and providers- a meaning which is slowly being co-opted in a way that’s really disenfranchising for trauma survivors (a group which is already marginalized and limited in accessing trauma-informed care).

Trauma Triggers are Unique to Each Individual

 Not all triggers are what you’d think of as difficult topics, not all difficult topics are triggers. Triggers are intensely personal to each individual and can range from people/places/things to relationship dynamics, and just about anything else.

It’s important to note that leearning to recognize triggers as we work through trauma is not so we can carefully and precisely avoid them. Instead, naming triggers as we work through trauma is all about growing awareness of how we are impacted, developing skills to help soothe ourselves, and creating a game plan so that we can find ways to return to ourselves after a trauma trigger. With time and practice, triggers can shrink from giant trapdoors in our path down to little puddles we know how to splash through.

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printable infographic describing the difference between a trauma trigger and not a mental health trigger - but just an appropriately upsetting topic.
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Trigger Warnings

For some trauma-survivor advocates, trigger warnings are promoted as a way to navigate difficult topics as potential triggers, but are they actually helpful? New research presents evidence that Trigger Warnings may actually have the opposite of the intended effect.

 

Image description for screen readers:
Image describing Triggers vs. “Triggered” on alight blue background with two columns of text. On the left, the title “Not A Trigger” is written with a blue background behind the words. Underneath is written, “It’s normal to feel upset, anxious, or extremely uncomfortable when we encounter  difficult content. Having a strong reaction is normal & learning to regulate is part of normal emotional development.” Below this text is a doodle of a person with short hair and an upset expression staring into a TV screen, sitting on a TV stand with a plant on the side of it. The TV screen says “Upsetting Topic.” On the right, the title “Trigger” is written with a pink background behind the words. Underneath is written, “Trauma triggers are different. They often include a loss of a person’s sense of time, space, &/or self. Emotion is amplified or completely muffled, or sometimes seemingly unrelated to a situation. Triggers are like a TRAP DOOR in the brain.” Below this text is a doodle of a person with long hair in a pony tail, running and whistling, with music notes above their head. They are running toward a hole in the ground, with a mailbox and a tuft of flowers.
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Jolene Bridges

Wednesday 27th of January 2021

Your Trauma Trigger vs. Uncomfortable Topic drawing really helped me understand my 24 year old daughter with Autism. She is highly intelligent but her anxiety and impulsiveness get in the way. She gets very upset when involved in an uncomfortable topic and I would call it being triggered and that would set her off even more! Now I understand why. Thank you for your insight.

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