The term “triggered” often gets tossed around casually, but it’s more than just a meme. People commonly oversimplify the concept, implying it’s all about being overly sensitive or irrational.
Beyond the jokes, being triggered involves complex psychological and physiological processes. It’s not just about being thin-skinned; it’s about individual experiences, past traumas, and the complicated world of human emotions.
What does it really mean to be “triggered”?
Getting triggered means having an immediate strong emotional response (e.g., anger or distress) to content or events that evoke a past traumatic experience. What gets triggered, therefore, is the trauma — the feelings and reactions that are associated with the traumatic event.
Today, some people use the term ‘getting triggered’ more broadly to include reactions that are not necessarily associated with past trauma. What we often fail to acknowledge is that if a person gets triggered but does not have PTSD, their sharp emotional response is likely due to an unhealed emotional wound.
This distinction is important because PTSD requires treatment by a mental health professional, while many emotional wounds can be treated via therapy or self-help, and the sensitivity to them is reduced as a result.
The second thing we get wrong relates to trigger warnings. We assume they’re both useful and effective. However many recent studies have found that neither is necessarily true.
Are trigger warnings useful?
Trigger warnings were initially instituted on college campuses beginning in the 1990s to warn people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that the upcoming media or class includes certain themes, so that the person may either opt-out or prepare themselves to lower their emotional reactivity to it.
A variety of studies have found that trigger warnings are not only unhelpful, but they can have a downside for people who have PTSD.
They can reinforce a survivor’s view of the trauma as being central to their identity — something that is counter-therapeutic and potentially damaging to their mental health as it gives the trauma an even bigger place in their lives than it already has (reminding them, suggesting they can’t handle exposures, etc.).
Misunderstanding about trigger warnings #1: We believe that trigger warnings will help blunt the emotional impact of upsetting content.
In truth, studies found that trigger warnings have very little impact on the emotional responses people have to the content.
Misunderstanding about trigger warnings #2: We believe that trigger warnings will help people avoid distressing content.
Curiosity made Pandora open the mythical box, and as it turns out, something similar happens around trigger warnings. Some studies found that the same content presented with and without trigger warnings caused more people to engage with the content that had trigger warnings than the same content that did not have trigger warnings.
Does that mean we should do away with trigger warnings?
Not necessarily, as some people with PTSD might use them to opt out and the issue is still being studied.
How to Deal with Getting Triggered if You Don’t Have PTSD
When a situation or certain content causes you an outsized sharp emotional response, especially when it’s caused by content and not interpersonal siltation, it implies you might have an emotional wound that has not healed fully or sufficiently.
For example, you’re out on a date and your date reaches over with their fork and takes something from your plate with a smile, and you feel totally enraged. Or your sister tells you about a trip she took with her friends and you feel intensely sad.
To deal with these triggers, you need to get curious about why you got triggered by them.
Ask yourself these four questions when you feel triggered:
- What exactly am I feeling?
- What situation in my past is this reminding me of?
- What are the feelings I still have about that situation?
- What can I do to address the emotional wound if it still hasn’t fully healed?
For example, the person who reacts to their date doing the ‘food steal’ might have reacted strongly because their last relationship was with a very controlling person. Their reaction might indicate they still have some healing to do.
The ‘sister trip’ sadness might indicate you’re feeling lonely or lacking a clear ‘tribe,’ in which case action is required there too.
In short, having outsized emotional responses to situations others react to less intensely can be signs of emotional wounds that still need healing. If you have them, find them and treat them.
Guy Winch is a distinguished psychologist and acclaimed author. His work has been featured in The New York Times and Psychology Today.
This article was originally published at Guy Winch’s newsletter. Reprinted with permission from the author.