What “Trigger” Means

Sometimes online I see people seriously misusing the word “trigger” in a mental health sense. This has been said before, and better, by others, but I need to chime in.

If something annoys or upsets you, it isn’t a trigger. It’s something that annoys or upsets you.

If it makes you angry, it isn’t a trigger. It’s something that makes you angry.

If you don’t like it, or you find it disgusting or disturbing, or you strongly disagree with it, it still isn’t a trigger.

Something is a trigger, in a mental health sense, when it causes severe mental and emotional distress arising from past trauma, including flashbacks of the traumatic event (or one of them). Triggering, in this sense, is a reaction tied to PTSD. An incident, or word, or whatever, reminds you so strongly of the trauma you experienced that it’s as if you’re experiencing it all over again.

If you haven’t experienced that degree of trauma, I’m glad for you. But many others have. If you did, but you’ve worked hard to overcome it and you can confront things that used to trigger you, I admire you. I’ve been able to do that myself with a few of my more minor triggers, but there are some things that will probably always trigger me. (Don’t ever tell me to take a bath to relax myself…)

Using “trigger” in a minimized way, for example, “I can’t stand that color shirt, it’s really triggering me” or “He told me I was wrong about Supernatural, and that triggered me” is completely insensitive and offensive, and it causes a lot of harm to those who are legitimately triggered by reminders of traumas.

The more the word is tossed around, the less impact it has, and the more likely it is that if someone said, “I read a sexual assault scene in this book, and I ended up in the emergency room because it triggered me,” other people are going to just brush it off or accuse the person of seeking attention. Think about what you’re saying and why. And think about the effect your words have on others.

Agree to Disagree

On social media, people post a lot of different things. Sometimes things we agree with; sometimes things we don’t.

When it’s a site like Facebook, where in theory we’re “friends” with the people whose posts we see, reading something we strongly disagree with can lead to the desire to correct their misperception. After all, they’re our friend, right? We want them to know right from wrong.

But to them, maybe what they’ve posted isn’t wrong. We don’t all agree on everything. If everybody thought the same way, the world would be a rather boring place.

It’s unlikely that you’re going to change someone’s mind by telling them they’re wrong. Unless it’s something factual, and you have the information to prove they’re incorrect, you’re dealing with a difference in opinions and beliefs. Those are neither right nor wrong in a general sense, only right or wrong for each individual. Telling a friend their opinion or belief system is wrong is more likely to change their mind about being friends with you than about the topic.

If it’s a case where there’s a huge discrepancy between your opinion and theirs, it might be a sign that the friendship really isn’t viable. Back in 2015, when the US legalized same-sex marriage, I posted things on Facebook cheering for the change in law. A friend of mine private messaged me to berate me for posting pro-LGBT+ things on my own Facebook wall, and made it clear that they strongly disapproved of any such thing and would “have a problem” with me if I shared anything like that with them in the future. I ended what was, at the time, a 29-year friendship because I refuse to have intolerance and hatred in my life, particularly in a venue where my offspring might see it.

But if it’s a milder thing, is it worth risking the friendship just to try to convince them you’re right? Of course it’s okay to express your opinion even if it disagrees with theirs, but unless you feel so strongly about the issue that you’d rather lose the friend than the argument, it might be best to agree to disagree.

Watch What You Say Online

It’s ridiculous sometimes how much of our information is shared online, and how much is taken over by others. Ridiculous—and scary.

Pretty much everyone who’s ever online has been told to be careful what they share, but being careful has different meanings to different people. I had an experience over the summer where I’d posted something about people I knew, using pseudonyms and believing I was posting privately. Someone saw the post and reported it to one of the people mentioned—even though I never mentioned that person’s name. Somehow, the person who reported the post put pieces together, pieces I didn’t even realize existed, and found out who I was referring to.

People were hurt by that, and six months later, I still feel horrible. Not only did they see something I’d posted that they were never meant to see, but one of the people involved had children. The person who put the pieces together could just as easily have been a predator. Thank goodness that wasn’t the case, but it definitely gave me a wake-up call about being far more mindful in what and where I say things online. (As soon as I was told what had happened, I contacted one of the moderators of the forum where I’d posted and asked that the posts be removed, which they were.)

Online, people share a lot about their lives. Information. Pictures of their families. What’s going on at their job. We might think we’re taking steps to protect ourselves and the people about whom we post, but you never know who might see it and decide to dig and find out more. There’s no way to completely protect everything we post. All we can do is be even more careful than we think we need to be.

Or just not go online. But I think for most of us, that’s pretty unlikely.

Be Careful What You Post

We hear all the time that nothing on the Internet is ever entirely private, and that once it’s online, it’s there forever. Most people, however, tend to think that it’s okay to post pictures of themselves, their families, their pets, and so on. They probably know there’s a risk, but they still want to share all of those things with people they know.

Unfortunately, when we share with people we know, we’re also sharing with total strangers, as my 20-year-old and I, and several others, discovered last week.

Someone on Instagram alerted my 20-year-old to a picture on another girl’s Instagram. The picture was captioned something like, “Mark struggled with being a gay teen in high school. His bullies killed him. He was in the process of transitioning. Such an inspiration!”

The picture… wasn’t anyone named Mark. Wasn’t even of anyone male. It was of my 20-year-old, a picture they had posted on their own Instagram a week or so earlier. (Note: My 20-year-old is agender and prefers “they/them” pronouns; explaining for the sake of clarity, and with their permission.) The 20-year-old and some of their friends confronted the girl, who denied stealing the pictures and insisted that the pic on her account was really a boy named Mark. Even when some others who apparently knew the girl personally joined in, and when 20-year-old posted the picture the girl had stolen, the girl continued to deny it.

The problem didn’t stop there, though. The girl stole a few more of 20-year-old’s pictures. She captioned one of them with a different story about Mark and how he died. I made the mistake of posting on the picture telling the girl to stop stealing my kid’s pics…and she went to *my* Instagram and stole three of *my* pics. One of me on a camping trip with a friend last summer, one of my husband holding our then-newborn nephew, and my author pic. I’d rather not say what she captioned those.

My 20-year-old confronted the girl via direct message, demanding that the girl take down the pictures of me and my nephew. The girl’s response was disturbing: “Why does it matter to you? They aren’t people you care about.” When 20-year-old pointed out that the *pictures* were of people they care about, the girl said, “No they aren’t. They aren’t real people.”

The girl, from what other people said, is 14 years old and has a history of doing this kind of thing. Several people made sure to post on every single picture saying that it was a fake, and giving the girl’s real name and the information that she’d been stealing pictures and making up stories about them for a while. My 20-year-old, some of her friends, some of the other people whose pictures this girl had stolen, and I all reported her to Instagram. My sister-in-law, the mother of my nephew, contacted a friend of hers who’s a state police trooper and was told the police wouldn’t be able to do anything; since the girl changed the names of the people in the pictures and (poorly) photoshopped them to appear a tiny bit different from the originals, it didn’t constitute any illegal behavior.

As of last night, the girl apparently took down almost all of the pictures she stole from 20-year-old and me, except the one of my nephew. She also posted what she called an apology: saying that she wasn’t going to post any more pictures “for other people” because she didn’t want to post anything untrue. I hope she’ll stop doing this kind of thing. Unfortunately, given what some of the people who know her had posted, I doubt she will.

So be careful what you put out there online. And, even though it sucks, be prepared to have someone else take what you’ve posted and use it for their own purposes. Sometimes pretty negative purposes.