Using the word ‘Triggered’: What’s the harm?

The word ‘triggered’ has become a bit of a buzzword in modern society. It’s often used quite freely, without a full understanding of its clinical roots. 

I have to admit, this is something that can irk me; you may have seen me talking about it on my Instagram Live towards the end of last year. 

While I am all for bringing awareness of mental health into discussion, I’ve seen first hand how the widespread, inaccurate use of this word can be damaging to my clients. If you’re living with a mental health condition caused by a trauma, or if one of your family members or friends is, it’s important to consider you might be adding to their mental load by using this word around them.

That’s why, in this post, I want to dive into the clinical meaning of being ‘triggered’ and look at both the potential positives and the dangers of its use in everyday language. 

Triggered as a clinical term

Being ‘triggered’, in a clinical sense, is rooted in trauma, where a stimulus prompts an involuntary response to a past traumatic experience.  

A trigger doesn’t necessarily have to be scary. It could be a smell, a sight, a sound, a texture, food, or situation, but it creates an automatic reaction or strong physiological response. 

A genuine ‘trigger’ causes a person’s mind or body to react as if they are once again in that traumatic scenario, even if they’re not. Trauma triggers can be sensory, emotional, or situational and they may vary from person to person. 

For example, the victim of an assault might be triggered by the smell of the cologne their perpetrator wore, setting off a flashback and/or panic attack.

Similarly, someone living with an eating disorder might feel triggered by entering a hospital, taking them back to distressing restraints they experienced as an in-patient.

The problem of misusing clinical terms

The word ‘triggered’ has become more readily used in our society in recent years. It’s drifted away from being directly linked to trauma into the realm of more general mental health to describe a strong negative emotion to a situation that’s disturbing you in some way.

‘Triggered’ is often used colloquially, even being used to mock people perceived as weak, overly sensitive, or easily upset. 

We all have different opinions on topics including politics and media and everything in between. However, nowadays, an emotional response to these subjects can see people labelled as an easily ‘triggered’ ‘cry baby’. 

Using the term in this sense downplays its importance and seriousness. It’s insulting to those who have suffered trauma, undermining and trivialising the severity of their struggles.

When is it ok to use the word ‘triggered’?

Language naturally evolves and when clinical terms enter our everyday language it does have some positive implications. 

Breaking away from the rigidity of clinical terms helps to make discussions around mental health more inclusive. It can make it more comfortable to talk about mental health and contribute to its destigmatisation, which is great. 

That said, when using clinical terms, I believe it’s important that we act sensitively.

Few people set out to intentionally upset others with their words. But as we’ve learnt, misuse of the word ‘triggered’ can be harmful for someone with a trauma history. 

Using the term ‘triggered’ to describe your response to an event or situation that made you feel a little sad or upset is, in my view, not appropriate. Perhaps simply saying something has ‘riled you’, made you angry, or upset, might be more suitable. 

However, if something really has triggered you, it’s important to recognise that. 

Everybody has different experiences in life and we never know how our words might land with someone who’s experienced a trauma. And using polarising language can often create unnecessary divisions. However, being more empathetic with our words will help to build more understanding between us.  

So while it’s no bad thing for language to evolve, I think it’s a good idea to be careful with how we use clinical terms such as ‘triggered’ in everyday conversation, to be respectful and sensitive to those who have suffered a trauma. 

If you or a loved one has experienced trauma, we can help. Please get in touch with Altum Health to book a free, 20 minute consultation.

Take care,

Dr Courtney


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