It’s PTSD Awareness Month, which means it’s the perfect time for me to school some fools on a condition that, unfortunately, I have. You may have noticed a lot of people on the internet making jokes about being “triggered” over small annoyances or insignificant issues. What you may or may not realize it that this is a psychological term that describes a symptom of PTSD.
I am losing respect for people left and right when they use this term sarcastically, so it’s time for me to stop staring at them blankly and start telling them the truth. When you say you’re “triggered” when you mean you’re offended, you sound ignorant at best, and at worst, you sound like a malicious asshat.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a traumatic event. PTSD is most commonly associated with war veterans and sexual assault survivors, but there are many different experiences that can prompt PTSD. Events such as natural disasters, car accidents, the unexpected death of a loved one, or even just hearing about a traumatic incident experienced by someone you care about can cause PTSD symptoms.
Some common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Low mood
- Suicidal thoughts
- Paranoia/distrust of others
- Social isolation
- Severe anxiety
- Avoiding places, people, and events that remind you of the traumatic incident
- Flashbacks — feeling like you are experiencing the traumatic incident all over again
- Hypervigilance — being easily startled, feeling “on edge”
- Dissociation — feeling separated from your body, unable to be present in your surroundings
Note that you can also have PTSD symptoms that cannot be attributed to one specific event. This is referred to as Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). People are diagnosed with C-PTSD when they are exposed to trauma repeatedly over the course of months or even years.
Combat survivors, victims of abuse, people recovering from years of childhood neglect… yeah, these are great targets for your humor and disdain (insert sarcastic tone here).
What is a Trigger?
A trigger is a sight, sound, smell, or thought that is a reminder of trauma and prompts PTSD symptoms to present. Specific triggers vary from person to person. Some are predictable, the way the Kavanaugh hearings were so triggering for sexual assault survivors for obvious reasons. They can also be something entirely unexpected.
For example, the night I was assaulted, I passed by a swim school sign on my way to my attacker’s apartment. For the first few months afterward, I avoided that intersection like the plague. If I did accidentally pass that sign, I would be instantly thrown back to that night. Two years and countless hours of treatment later, I am usually unaffected when I happen to pass by that sign. However, every once and a while when I am already feeling anxious, a trigger like that might put me over the edge. Such is the joy of living with this super hilarious mental illness (some more sarcasm for you).
What It Feels Like to Be Triggered
Being triggered is a physiological response. You don’t choose to be triggered. It’s not being deeply offended by some minor slight. It’s your body’s arousal system going into hyper drive.
Let’s say you’re going about your day totally normally. You might be in the grocery store, or out with friends, or even just hanging out at home, when it hits you out of nowhere. You heard a song that was playing while you were being assaulted, or one of your friends comes up behind you and startles you, or there is a car accident on TV.
The exact symptoms that show up might vary. Some might experience a flashback and they feel like they are taken back in time to the traumatic event. Others might be suddenly consumed with a desire to run, to hide, or even to die to get away from the feelings they are experiencing. Physical symptoms like racing heart, shallow breathing, and chest pain are also common.
I personally find dissociation to be the worst. I feel completely removed from a situation even if I’m physically there. I can be surrounded by close friends and I can’t feel their love at all. I am completely alone. It’s the most frustrating and isolating feeling, like you’re sitting behind glass watching the world go by.
Unfortunately, I am more likely to be triggered in big groups of people, so parties are hit or miss for me. I have to be in the right mental state or I will get the floating-above-my-head feeling and have to roll out early. This is further isolating and has prevented me from having deeper relationships with a lot of people I’d love to get to know more. Fortunately, my close friends are completely understanding when I need to bail on social gatherings. I just wish I didn’t have to miss out as much as I do.
Why Do People Say They Are “Triggered” as a Joke?
The most gracious version of myself believes that people make this joke because they don’t know better. They probably heard their friends or someone on the internet say it, and figured it would be an amusing turn-of-phrase to pick up without really knowing the source of the term.
Of course, there is also a political aspect to it. There are people who are under the impression that “triggered” is a term created by “social justice warriors” who “can’t take a joke.” These are the people who are under the impression that people who are “triggered” like playing the victim and are just searching for offense wherever they go. This is how they are able to dismiss people who experience oppression from sexism, racism, ableism, transphobia, and other insidious prejudices as “overreacting.”
These are not the people I am trying to reach by writing this article. My assumption is that if you’ve made it this far, you’re either already on board or you are genuinely curious and open to change. To you I will say, you do not want to be associated with these people. You care about others. You don’t want to cause unnecessary harm. There are way more hilarious jokes to make. Find them and leave this one for the intentionally hateful.
Why Do I Care?
You might still wonder why it even matters if people co-opt this term. I’m sure there are other people with PTSD who really DGAF if anyone says “triggered.” There are certainly other things that I find more important in the world of PTSD advocacy, like making sure that people have access to treatments that work for them.
Most of the time, when I hear this term used as a joke, I can roll my eyes and move on with my day. But on some level, it always hurts me to hear someone be so casual and ignorant about something that has profoundly impacted my life, relationships, and wellbeing. Though I am not triggered nearly as frequently as I used to be (from every day when I was first diagnosed versus maybe once every few months now), I still have to build my daily life and future around the reality of this condition. When someone says they’re “triggered” over something absolutely idiotic, I just think to myself, “If you knew what it was really like, you wouldn’t find it funny at all.”
Beyond that, language matters. The words we hear subconsciously create beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. You don’t know who is listening and what type of shame they may feel when you use the word “triggered” in such a contemptuous way, shame that may prevent them from getting the help they need.
The stigma of having a mental illness is heavy enough. There is no reason for you to contribute with a highly unoriginal and distinctly unfunny joke. If you do nothing else this June, resolve to leave the word “triggered” behind, except when you are helping someone with PTSD. Choose compassion over lazy humor, my friends.
If you are interested in learning more about PTSD, or if you or someone you love is experiencing PTSD, here are some resources that may help.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman
National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)