Why Misusing the Word ‘Triggered’ Can Be Harmful

Jake Newby

| 4 min read

The word “triggered” has historically been reserved for use in mental health circles. A “trigger” is a painful, overwhelming memory tied to the senses of someone who has experienced significant trauma and maybe prone to panic attacks or be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In recent years the term has taken on concerning new meanings. The term is incorrectly used to indicate feelings of mild discontent and to mock people who they perceive as overly sensitive. It is often used as a politically charged insult.

The physiological response of being triggered

When a person who has dealt with trauma is triggered, their body prepares to fight, flee or freeze. The cascade of chemicals in their brain can cause autonomic instability, resulting in flashbacks, increased hypertension, a faster heartbeat, chest pain, or shortness of breath – physical manifestations of anxiety-provoking events. The brain may also pause some of its normal functions while addressing the threat, sometimes affecting short-term memory.
Certain sounds, sights, visual images, scents, foods, words, people and anniversaries could trigger symptoms of a person who lost a loved one, suffered an assault of some kind or experienced military combat, as examples. People diagnosed with PTSD may respond to traumatic events with feelings of concern, anger, fear or helplessness.
Physiologically speaking, this is what triggers are for. They release that cascade of chemicals that cause certain symptoms. They “trigger” a person’s body and mind to react as if they are once again in harm’s way, even if they are not.

Why misusing ‘triggered’ is inappropriate

Using the term “triggered” without the intention of describing a diagnosis minimizes the experiences of someone suffering from PTSD-related triggers. According to the National Center for PTSD, people who have been through trauma, loss, or hardship in the past may be even more likely than others to be affected by new, potentially traumatic events. You never know how the words you use may be received by someone who suffers from PTSD or panic attacks. Responses to new traumatic events, could include: 
  • General distress or an increase in PTSD symptoms 
  • Quickly becoming angry 
  • Sleeping poorly 
  • Drinking or drinking more heavily 
  • Trying to avoid all reminders or media about their personal incident, or shying away from social situations in general
Instead of using triggered to describe negative reactions during everyday situations, go with “getting you riled up” or use the euphemism “pushing someone’s buttons.”

Coping skills to practice 

Here are some coping skills that can help you regulate your emotions:
  • Self-soothe to reset your nervous system: Breathe deeply from your stomach to let your nervous system know you are OK. Try listening to relaxing ambient music or taking a hot bath.
  • Give yourself a pep talk: Instead of focusing on how someone else chose to react, ask yourself what choices you have now in the moment that will allow you to shake it off. What people, places or things will help you to de-stress or feel safer? Is this interaction going to affect you one hour, day, week or month from now? Remind yourself that you may not know why you feel the way you do, but you can get past it.
  • Practice mindfulness: This can include yoga, meditation and journaling. 
  • Engage in stress management: Go for a walk outside or seek the support of loved ones or pets. Stress management also involves long-term measures, like regular physical activity, a diet full of nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods, and seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
A mental health professional can help you learn skills to regulate your emotions. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network can help members find an in-network mental health professional by calling behavioral health access lines listed below: 
PPO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-762-2382 
  • A free and confidential resource that’s just a call away when you need immediate support. Behavioral health professionals answer, 24/7. 
HMO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-482-5982 
  • Connect with a behavioral health clinician if you need help finding a mental health or substance use provider. 
  • Behavioral health clinicians are available for routine assistance from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For urgent concerns after hours, clinicians are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 
Learn more about mental health and options you have as a member to seek help at bcbsm.com/mentalhealth
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