If tutoring is cancelled, I can spend my entire day only having to interact face-to-face with two people. It’s an introverts dream!
Since I’m in a new role, and since I work with grade levels I’ve never worked with before, I spend a lot of time reading, researching, and reviewing best practices. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to help children develop and understand their ever-changing identities. The more I read and listen, the more often I see and hear that someone has been “triggered.”
In high school my trigger words would have been ‘crazy’ and ‘selfish.’ I was a square peg coveting circles. I stuck out everywhere, even when I didn’t want the attention. Even when race and gender didn’t play a role. I struggled to find connections and make real friendships. I struggled to find people who cared about me and cared about the things I was interested in. I just didn’t seem to belong anywhere. These words reaffirmed that I was right and reaffirmed that it was wrong for me to aspire to belong somewhere.
Ten years ago my trigger words would have been ‘bitter,’ ‘bitch,’ and ‘independent woman.’ Good lord, I hate that Ne-Yo song! Even the beat is triggering.
Now my trigger words are ‘fat,’ ‘real American,’ ‘illegal alien’ and MAGA.
Triggering is simple, but I wanted to learn more.
How ‘Triggering’ Evolved
In the late 1910s and 1920s, “triggering” was established by clinicians and psychologists who were deepening their understanding of the effects of World War I on its surviving soldiers. They studied those who were suffering from war neuroses and shell shock. After 1975 these effects were known readily as commonly held symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This official term emerged after the end of the Vietnam War.
In psychology triggers are stimuli, often associated with the senses, that reproduce feelings of past trauma. The word is typically used when describing PTSD, but it has also been used in reference to other mental health concerns such as substance abuse, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders.
Triggers are not the same for everyone, but they often set off a memory tape or a flashback of the initial traumatic experience. They can cause someone to have panic attacks, to have flashbacks, or to become overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, or sadness. They send us back in time. You can learn more about sensory-based triggers here.
In the 1930s, the word “trigger” was used figuratively to describe the process of setting off a chain of events.
Since the early 2000s, “trigger” has been used to mean something that causes stress, anxiety, or “everyday” anger and frustration. We are “triggered” when someone “pushes our buttons.”
Some triggers are predictable (such as racial slurs).
Others are personally significant to those who are triggered.
Some of us are triggered whenever anyone uses a particular word/phrase.
Some of us are triggered only when a specific person— or a specific group of people– uses the word.
What’s Wrong With Triggering?
English is riddled with words whose meaning has changed over time– and whose meaning has changed more than once in its lifetime. Historian Anne Curzan made a list, but there are scores of others.
I don’t think we (individually) have the power to change how a single word is used or whether it is used at all. At best we can just decide that we won’t say it, or decide that we’ll only use it when the situation most resembles its original context.
My problem isn’t per se with the word or even with the way we flippantly use language.
My problem, I think, is that we just don’t seem to take mental health very seriously. Not our own. Not each others.
We seem to disassociate mental health issues from real people.
If someone is weird, we call them crazy.
If someone is too clean or too organized, we say they’re “a little OCD.”
We think it’s funny when someone has a breakdown: case in point, Kanye West (I’m still not rooting for him though).
We’re not as upset as we should be about the rise in rates of depression and suicide nationally and internationally.
When someone annoys us, we’re triggered.
How do we respect the rights, feelings, and perspectives of those who’ve experienced mental health issues, illnesses, or disorders?
Is it disrespectful to refer to these things as illnesses and disorders?
What can we do to help re-engage those experiencing PTSD and other anixety-related conditions?
If we can’t help, what can we do to prevent greater harm?
If these aren’t the right questions, what are the right ones?
How we use language matters, but our individual and collective mental health (I would argue) matters more.