Why We Need To Stop Using 'Triggered' In The Wrong Context

Photographed by Flora Maclean.
Remember when Greggs started selling vegan sausage rolls and Piers Morgan kicked off? The news story itself was inane, but the commentary around it was significant for its bizarre misuse of the psychological term 'triggered':
Since then, I’ve noticed 'triggered' being thrown around in everyday conversations. It’s become a fashionable way of expressing discomfort or disdain in reaction to something – "I got food poisoning from that café, now it triggers me", "I felt triggered by his ex-girlfriend's photo" – or even to mock someone, in the way Matt Haig did.
Nobody’s more baffled by the popular misuse of 'triggered' than people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like me. According to PTSD UK, that’s one in 10 people. For us, being triggered means being unexpectedly thrown into a trauma hellmouth, at any time, anywhere.
PTSD is often caused by a traumatic event in which you’re trapped in a situation where your life is in immediate danger. The experience of the trauma is too overwhelming for your brain to process at the time, so it doesn’t. Weeks, months or years later, certain 'triggers' can revive the memory of the event and the feelings associated with it.
Having PTSD is like having an overactive smoke alarm in your house. An alarm is designed to save your life if your house catches fire. Except PTSD means your alarm is highly sensitive and goes off at the slightest sense of heat. One day, it mistakes the heat from the cooker for a house fire and starts screeching at a deafening volume. Your heart starts pounding, your life is in danger, and you’re flooded with so much adrenaline that you jump out of your window and run down the street in your pyjamas.

Nobody's more baffled by the popular misuse of 'triggered' than people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

That alarm actually exists in the brain: it’s called the amygdala. It’s what triggers our 'fight or flight' response in emergency situations. But when we experience something overwhelming, in a space where we’re trapped and unable to escape, our memory of that event is not processed and we develop PTSD.
Days, months or years later, when something triggers that unprocessed memory, the amygdala goes into overdrive, resulting in hyperalertness or, at the opposite end of the scale, completely zoning out. Both are survival strategies.
Anyone can develop PTSD. In the UK, this includes one in three teenagers who survive a car crash. Seventy percent of rape survivors. Four percent of women who have given birth. Child abuse survivors. If you’ve experienced trauma in your life, there’s a chance that you have it too.
Advertisement
Beth* is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. "It’s only in recent years that I learned about triggers and recognised that I was in fact not crazy, or obsessed, for being thrown back into these early-age experiences all the time," she explains. "For those who have not experienced this before, it is like you walk between two worlds. The best way I can describe it is like giant but invisible claws come down from the sky and from the past to throw you back into your body at the time when you experienced the trauma."
"I think the word 'triggered' gets used when perhaps people mean 'upsetting'," she says of its newfound prominence in everyday discourse. "I say this not to undermine anyone’s experience or hurt, but because I do think there’s a difference between being reminded of a pain and being thrown back without your will, or any warning, into an earlier experience of trauma."
In a country where one in four women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, trauma is woven into the fabric of our culture. It’s actually surprising that we don’t talk more about the lasting psychological injury that domestic abuse causes, long after a victim has fled.
Dr Lucy Allwright has 10 years of experience supporting women who have survived gendered violence. "We know that women who have experienced forms of gendered violence are very likely to experience high rates of PTSD, but they may not get the support they need," she explains. "We see a lot of women interacting with the mental health system who are presenting with symptoms of their trauma, but they may instead get diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and not be asked proper questions about their experiences."
Advertisement
"When someone has endured ongoing 'life-threatening powerlessness' (a term coined by trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk), part of their brain is constantly looking out for signs of danger. This can result in hyperarousal or hypo-arousal, which means they might be constantly on edge, checking. They might also numb out or zone out. Those are the survival strategies that have kept them alive."
So perhaps we ought to rethink being glib or flippant when we say we’re "TRIGGERED!" online.
Feminists have been raising awareness of the lifelong trauma caused by domestic abuse and sexual violence for decades, but after the 2017 breakthrough of the #MeToo movement, it feels like we’ve reached a critical mass.

While PTSD is very personal, it has a systemic root cause, which is why how we talk about trauma in popular culture matters.

As Tarana Burke, who founded #MeToo in the Bronx in 2006, said last year: "There’s not anything different being said right now, except there’s more voices saying it... It’s not that we’re finding our voices, it’s that we’ve finally reached a frequency where people can hear."
While PTSD is very personal, it has a systemic root cause, which is why how we talk about trauma in popular culture matters.
In her groundbreaking book, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman argues that psychological trauma can only be understood in a social context. Herman explores the parallel experiences of domestic violence survivors and war veterans with PTSD, noting that public recognition of the trauma they have experienced is a key part of veterans' trauma healing and connection with society.
What impact could the trivial use of 'triggering' have on sexual violence survivors? Sanah Ahsan is a trainee clinical psychologist and founder of the 4 in 4 campaign, which aims to shift the individualised focus of mental health on to how we can collectively help each other heal. She says: "The popular use of the word 'triggering' is a very live issue that shows how language evolves through social media. It’s just one of many pop-psychology terms that gets thrown around, like 'toxic', and people don’t fully understand the implications."
Advertisement
"If someone says they’re being triggered, I don’t want to suggest that they’re not, but we do need to be accountable for how we’re using this language and be careful not to invalidate the experiences of people who have trauma. We can all be more mindful about the way we use our language, and remember to be sensitive to how much depth the term 'trigger' can hold for some of us," she adds.
"There’s a big difference between someone feeling emotional discomfort and someone having a panic attack or flashback to being raped."
It is upsettingly ironic that PTSD survivors remain so misunderstood and unsupported at a time when PTSD jargon is common parlance. Dr Allwright says that while the use of 'triggering' is now widespread, when we pick up language like this "it can become meaningless".
"It’s important we understand that there is still a specific context to triggering that’s related to trauma, and we should link it back to trauma. We should try and create spaces to listen and support and acknowledge each other’s experiences," she adds.
In a world where so many of us are carrying the psychological burden of past pain, we owe it to each other to be more trauma-informed. Now that we’re speaking about sexual violence at this heightened frequency Tarana Burke describes, surely our first step to healing is to acknowledge the extent of the associated psychological pain.
Only an individual can define what their triggers are. Triggers can be anything from smells to songs to a scene in a film, and it’s hurtful and demeaning to survivors to dismiss them. What we need to keep in mind when using this word is that for some of us, being triggered is a distressing, disruptive psychological process that is almost always subconscious.
Advertisement
The spread of pop-psychology terms like this is understandable. We’re all reaching for new language to explain a turbulent, polarised and overwhelming world. Strong emotional reactions and distress are part of surviving a time when right-wing world leaders are gaining power and climate catastrophe casts its shadow over us all. Maybe we do need an expression that falls somewhere between 'upset' and 'brings up difficult memories'. What we do know is that the PTSD triggering that survivors endure is too serious and too misunderstood to be trivialised.
For support with PTSD, contact PTSD UK or call the Anxiety UK infoline on 03444 775 774. Anxiety UK also offers a text service on 07537 416 905.
*Name has been changed
Advertisement

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series