Triggered: What does it mean?

Whilst scrolling through Facebook one evening, I came across a post that jarred me. It’s not unusual for things I see on social media to take me by surprise, but this left me quite irritated – mainly because I knew it would spark a night of insomnia as I twisted and turned over the subject. A beautifully presented post hovered under my fingertip in dusty pinks with words in gold script. It read:

“Stop taking away from people with real trauma by calling things that upset you “triggers” …You’re just upset”.

At first, I thought it was a mock inspirational quote that missed the mark (I once followed a thread where people would post what looked at first glance like inspirational quotes. For example, a picture of a peaceful lake donned with typewriter font – but on closer inspection it would read something like “watching birds fly can cause neck strain”.) But no. And so, I whiled the hours away pondering the pain of the person who wrote this post; the direction of their anger and what it might mean to those who read it.

So, what are triggers? And why is it so important that we are able to call them by their name without fear of reprimand? A word that we should neither desensitise from, nor add conditions to; instead working to destigmatise. Let’s start by understanding that our brains are breathtakingly complex and remarkable. Our brains don’t just command the functions of our body and react to stimulus, they are also constantly learning and adapting – so much so that trauma can be detected in the physical structure of the brain. There are more neurons in the brain then there are stars in the universe; believe me when I tell you, you are astonishing.

But where do triggers come from? Let’s use a more extreme example and say that you are mugged at knife point. Your brain would quick fire to alert you to the danger, informing your subconscious by encoding threats in the process. Your brain knows that in order to keep you safe, you must identify the danger and react to it…But not just that, you must learn from it so as you can keep yourself from harm in the future. Your brain will shout “knife, silver, long and sharp!” (You need to know about that, right?) And it may shout “dark street, wet slippery pavement slowing me down, the tone of their voice!”. This will imprint, so perhaps what triggers you into a state of unease, panic or emotional distress in the future may not just be the view of a knife, but also the smell of rain on a hot pavement (will I slip and be unable to run if I need to?), or the same words they used repeated out of context.

Now, here’s the thing: during the traumatic experience your brain is working overtime. Pupils dilate, senses heighten, and we slip into a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. This is because our brain has sent an urgent command for stress chemicals to flood our system. Adrenaline and cortisol will narrow our attention to the danger, the pain, the threat or maybe the loudest and most alarming noises so that you are prepped to react. But our brain is busy elsewhere too; it is gathering evidence from the scene. It is taking in the thousands of details around us that could have informed this situation, even if they are in no way related. Your brain is taking notes: “parked white car, the smell of peanuts, a pink dress in the shop window”…and so on. The brain looks for patterns and logical connections, but it is working fast to a very old (albeit pretty amazing) blueprint. So, it isn’t encoding “smell of peanuts: check for peanuts…you were unsafe last time you smelt this” it is encoding “the smell of peanuts: DANGER!” deep into your subconscious. Your response upon smelling peanuts in the future could be unease, feeling the need to leave a situation, a full-blown panic attack or indeed “upset”… Either way, you are being triggered. You may easily be able to associate the sight of a blade as a trigger to your trauma, but the smell of peanuts might be harder to pinpoint. It is a trigger, nevertheless.

There is another a response to trauma, which I am drawn to reflect on as a way of understanding what triggered me in reading this post, we call this the “debrief response”. This is best described as a need to tell others about our experience. When our tribal ancestors were developing both physiologically and socially, debriefing traumatic or dangerous experiences was integral to our survival as a species. If you were attacked by a tiger whilst out hunting (why is this always the example? How many tigers were there in prehistoric times?) and survived, telling your tribe about your experience would educate on how to keep everyone safe. Debrief also allows us to come down from our panic responses. It is no wonder then that talking brings such relief. And no wonder too that being met with misunderstanding, judgement, or rejection when we do talk can cause such pain.

There is one main point in this all of this, and something we must be very clear on: Triggers differ from person to person, but so does trauma. One person’s trauma doesn’t take away from another’s and although we can appreciate that some traumas are more life threatening then others; just as the journey of someone with PTSD is different to someone with underlying anxiety. What we shouldn’t perpetuate is a culture of shame around any aspect of mental wellbeing. It’s a backwards step in opening the conversation around mental health. If you are being triggered and you want to call it a trigger, call it a trigger. If it’s a trigger to you, then that’s what it is.

It seems unfair to become irritated by a well-meaning Facebook post, which was probably working to highlight the struggles of people living with PTSD, or at the very least opening a conversation about mental health (which is exactly what we need!). But in my opinion, we should constantly be looking at the way we are talking about and reacting to mental health issues. It is something we are all responsible for, especially since we are all working towards a world where stigmas are broken. A community in which mental health is viewed with as much importance as physical health. A time when it is enough to say, “I am in pain”. But it starts with acts of courage from us all. The need for debate is still strong, but more important is the need for open communication met with allowing and acceptance.

“My leg is broken” “I burnt myself on that fire” “I have depression” “I am being triggered”.

Contributed by Cleo Reeves,
Specialist Support Office at First Steps ED