If you don’t have PTSD, it’s not a “trigger”

One of the hardest things about admitting publicly that I have PTSD is its association with the hordes of young people who wear their disorders like fashion accessories. The internet has begun to throw around the word “trigger” like it’s rice at a goddamn wedding.

It’s now at the point where “triggers” are inextricably linked with teens who wallow in self-pity over mental illnesses that they’ve self-diagnosed. This is not to say that everyone on Tumblr is faking it; I would say the majority are probably not. But “triggering” has now been picked up as a trendy term to describe anything that bothers someone. Stop it. Seriously.

What “trigger” actually means:

It’s a term created by mental health experts to describe an event that causes a flashback or volatile response in PTSD patients. It’s something that’s either directly or indirectly linked to the traumatizing event(s).

Common triggers:

  • War footage
  • Loud or sudden noises
  • Locations that are similar to the trauma. Back roads, alleyways, basements
  • Graphic violence in movies
  • Vomiting, or other pro-ana activities

These aren’t the only possible triggers; far from it. In her book No Comfort Zone, Marla Handy talks about how, as a child, her father beat her for spilling ketchup on the floor. So now the very specific event of spilling ketchup can trigger her to have a flashback.

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But the openness of the term has allowed some people to stretch it so far past its intended meaning that they seem to be free associating without any real understanding of what “triggers” actually do.

What happens when you’re triggered:

People respond in different ways depending on who they are and how they got PTSD. But common reactions include:

  • Debilitating flashbacks
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Violent outbursts (punching walls, knocking over furniture)
  • Screaming or crying
  • Overwhelming fear or rage
  • Uncontrollable shaking

These are real reactions to being triggered. It’s not something that offends your sensibilities. You may even be downright infuriated by something, but that doesn’t mean you’re being triggered. Specifically, if you don’t have PTSD, you’re not being triggered. You’re just having emotions, and despite what the Gods of Stoicism tell us, that’s completely natural.

About “trigger words”:

…What the fuck does that even mean? Trigger… words? Were you assaulted while you were reading? Attacked by a librarian? People who survived concentration camps have gone on to write thousands of words about their experiences. Victims write blogs, teach seminars, and actively seek out books written about PTSD trauma. I don’t understand why some kids feel they can’t even be in the presence of certain words.

In all my life, I’ve never met another diagnosed PTSD patient who felt triggered by words. This is a fictitious extension of normal triggers invented by social media. It also pisses me off immensely. Because it’s one of the reasons people don’t take triggers seriously.

The spread and dilution of this term are having a negative effect on people with legitimate PTSD. For example, the last time I tried to explain this concept to someone, I was told to “stop policing other people’s triggers!” by a person who had admittedly self-diagnosed over the internet, and oh my God, the amount of fuck you I had for this woman was immeasurable. People who are trying to speak up about their experiences are being lost in a sea of Münchausens. It’s already difficult to talk about this sort of thing anyway without the fear that you’ll be lumped in with a crowd of people who treat mental illness like a purse poodle.

So here’s the bottom line: In psychology, “trigger” is a word specifically for PTSD. Use it accordingly, or not at all. It’s just as easy to say “advisory” or “warning”. I know “trigger” sounds cool, but trust me, there’s nothing cool about it. PTSD is fucking lame. Here’s a tip: if you think your mental illness makes you unique, special, or dark and complex, you’re probably fine. And stop using “trigger” for every little thing that’s remotely controversial.

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