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.