I want to talk about triggers. A few days ago, I posted on Facebook about something that was triggering to me. I specified that I had been triggered. I was surprised at the response I got. Many people argued with me, told me I was wrong and that what had upset me was good and necessary, and even gave graphic descriptions of why it was so necessary (which was another exercise in being triggered). After things calmed down somewhat and I reiterated that I was being triggered and upset by their comments, I had one person mention to me that the had never heard of a trigger before: they didn’t know what I was talking about and so they didn’t understand that what they were doing was going to hurt me.
I was surprised. I live in a context where trigger is a common word. But I needed this reminder that it’s not something that everyone knows about, and that intelligent and well informed people may still need some explanations. So with that in mind, here’s a primer on what a trigger is, some basic do’s and don’ts of how to react to someone’s triggers, and a brief description of what it feels like to be triggered.
A trigger is an intense, uncontrollable, emotional reaction to something. It is typically a term reserved for someone with a mental illness because it is more than simply being upset or bothered by something. The term was originally coined to describe the experience of PTSD sufferers, when an object, experience, or sense creates a vivid flashbacks or other extreme memory of their trauma. The term has expanded somewhat to mean any experience that sets off a mental illness related incident or episode, whether that’s an anxiety or panic attack, a flashback, symptom use (restriction, purging, self harm, etc.) or some other mental illness symptom.
Triggers generally are related to past traumas that have left your brain impacted in some way. This means that when you see or hear or experience something that is a trigger, your emotions completely take over and you are in extreme, intense distress almost immediately. In its immediacy it is similar to an anxiety or a panic attack, although unlike those it doesn’t require that the individual react in certain ways. One could react to a trigger with a panic attack, but one could also react by sucking it up and dealing with it (which is what people are often expected to do).
A trigger is not the same as throwing a temper tantrum over something small, although it might appear to be so from the outside. It is also not weakness or simply being “oversensitive”. To take a parallel from physical health, let’s imagine you had broken your ankle. A trigger is like those elements of the ankle that never heal, only in your brain. Triggers are indications of where trauma has injured your brain. Being triggered is somewhat like being kicked in a broken ankle. It hurts, it’s scary, and you cannot stop that it hurts and is scary. The fact that you might have a friend who would laugh off getting kicked in the ankle doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for being hurt. It simply means that you have different situations.
Triggers can be all sorts of things depending upon the difficulties that an individual has faced before. For a vet, it could be loud noises, or the sound of helicopters. For someone who was raped, it could be the color of the curtains in the room it happened. For someone with an eating disorder it could be talk of calories and dieting. Triggers come in all shapes and sizes and don’t always make sense from the outside, but they’re simply about what sets off certain scripts and chain reactions in your brain.
So if you’re around someone and they say that they’ve been triggered or that something is triggering, what should you do?
First and foremost, accept that they are triggered by what they say they are triggered by. Respect them to know their own mental health better than you do, and whatever you do don’t tell them that they’re overreacting, that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel, that it’s inappropriate or wrong to feel what they feel, or that they should be able to deal.
These statements are all very invalidating of the experience of being triggered: a trigger is not an opinion or an argument. It’s not something you can disagree with or argue with. It’s an experience. That would be like telling someone that you don’t agree with how much it hurt them to step on their broken ankle. It simply doesn’t make sense to say. So accept what they have said, don’t argue with it, and don’t tell them it’s wrong. If you want to talk about the nuances of trigger warnings, the time to do so is not when someone is telling you they are triggered.
As a corollary DO NOT intentionally trigger someone. It’s important to remember that you’re not doing anything edgy, heroic, cool, or badass by ignoring someone’s triggers. You are not telling someone that you won’t put up with bad behavior or temper tantrums, you’re not teaching them about how harsh the real world is, you’re not “just having some fun”. You are being intentionally cruel. You are looking at an open wound and deciding what you can throw in it to make the person scream. This is a sick exercise. Don’t do it.
If someone opens up enough to you to tell you that they’re vulnerable in a certain state, the best thing you can do is ask them how you can help. Validate what they’re feeling, tell them that it must be horrible, and then ask if there’s anything you can do to help them avoid things that really hurt them that way, or help them when they’ve been triggered. Different people need different things when they’re distressed, so asking them what helps them is very important. If at all possible, try to do this when they’re not in the middle of being triggered.
Remember that when someone has been triggered, they are not themselves. If they’re typically someone whose statements are open to discussion, typically someone who’s analytical and wants to discuss things, typically someone who can just deal with whatever life throws at them, know that those things may not be the case when they’re in this extremely vulnerable state. Remember that you might need to give them a bit more space, or treat them a little more gently than you typically would. If they don’t want to talk about whatever has triggered them, let that rest. If they don’t want to solve whatever problem has triggered them, let that rest. If they simply need to vent, let that rest. They’re hurting.
So all of this discussion has been fairly hypothetical, but I’d like to finish by giving you a concrete example of what it feels like when you’ve been triggered. I’m going to use the example that prompted this whole post because it’s the most fresh in my mind and because I’ve spent a lot of time reliving it recently so I feel it will be the most vivid and descriptive. (Note: there is a trigger warning for eating disorders on this)
Earlier this week I went to Starbucks. This was out of the ordinary for me, but I had a Starbucks gift card so I went to Starbucks. I walked in and looked at the menu and there, listed next to each and every drink was a calorie count. I felt my whole body involuntarily tense, my breath catch. I nearly turned and left the store, or bolted for their restroom. All I could think about was that I deeply wanted to stick my fingers down my throat and puke up everything I had eaten for the last week. I wanted to leave this store and go home and hide where I would not be tempted by food, where I could wait until my body shriveled away and passed out, where I could safely avoid food for at least the next week. All these thoughts ran through my head immediately.
I took a deep breath and shoved them away so that I could get in line. I had to go to work and I was exhausted. I needed some caffeine. I stood in line with my mind racing and racing. I had to get a small. I had to get the lowest calorie count thing available on the menu, even if I didn’t like it. NO, fuck the calories, I should get the HIGHEST calorie count just to prove that I can. Or maybe a compromise, maybe if I just get a small of what I actually wanted I’d be ok. No that wouldn’t work, it was a full breakfast worth of calories and I don’t eat breakfast. Breakfast is unacceptable.
I barely remember getting to the register and ordering something in a haze. It bothered me for the rest of the day, and I put up a post on Facebook about how distressed I was. I got comment after comment about how calorie counts are necessary, about all the hidden calories in our food, about the obesity epidemic, graphic descriptions of the size and calorie counts of Starbucks drinks and how they were going to lead to death from obesity. I have not been able to stop thinking about calories and this incident ever since. I imagine I will never go to Starbucks again.
I’m worried about going to restaurants now, something I’d finally been starting to get over. I keep replaying over and over how much I keep eating and wondering how many calories are in each dish. I had stopped thinking about calories for a long time, and now they’re hiding in the back of my mind again. I’m terrified that my diet is entirely unhealthy, that I’m going to give myself diabetes, that I’m going to become obese and get heart disease. I have been unable to focus at work during an incredibly important time, I have found myself dissociating extremely badly, I have almost cried at work. I’ve been unable to sleep, constantly composing responses in my mind that justify why I was hurt, struggling to let myself eat, struggling against the impulse to self harm or to purge.
It feels as if my mind simply can’t shut off or won’t shut off because the most important thing in the world has presented itself: calories. And now I need to react, protect myself, run, escape in any way possible. That is a trigger.
P.S. For anyone who thinks that triggers don’t exist or are made up 1.Go fuck yourself and 2.There is a great deal of psychological research into the ways the brain is injured by trauma and how that affects the way someone functions for the rest of their life. It’s real. Figure out google and find some articles.