We need to stop misusing the term ‘trigger warning’

Lauren Bedford

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Mental illness is something that we all at one point or another experience in our lives. Personally, I live with diagnosed depression, anxiety and ADD, and it gets extremely tough sometimes to get through the day. My family has a history of mental illness and, without disclosing too much, most of my friends that I’ve spoken to either have or know someone who has depression or anxiety. It’s a problem that permeates our culture, and we do need to figure out why it’s so prominent, but that’s for another day. What I’d rather focus on is the strange reaction we have toward things relating to these mental illnesses, specifically things called “triggers.” 

According to Dictonary.com, a trigger is defined as “anything, as an act or event, that serves as a stimulus and initiates or precipitates a reaction or series of reactions.” In terms of mental health, it’s used as a definition for a type of memory that can set off panic attacks, disassociation, derealization or any other reaction to a potentially traumatic event relating to that memory. For example, someone who hears a certain song could be sent back to the night they were assaulted, or a certain smell could remind them of someone who hurt them. It really depends on the person. 

Triggers are used in therapeutic circles and in therapy sessions as a common term, and it helps those who’ve experienced trauma voice how they’re feeling. A trigger warning is usually put ahead of something that could potentially trigger someone, such as a warning in front of a Facebook post about rape. 

What we’ve seen recently is people using the terms “trigger,” “trigger warning” or “triggered” as jokes, a way of saying that someone is being too sensitive or is easily offended. The consequence of using this phrase has been seen in the same therapeutic circles, as people who actually experience triggers have become afraid to use the term for fear of being labeled as “oversensitive” or “weak.” They’re becoming afraid to voice how their illness is affecting them because of a phrase meant for health purposes being repurposed to make fun of people. 

I could say a lot of things about the habits we have when it comes to making fun of each other, especially those of us at a disadvantage in life, which arguably could include those with mental health issues. This strange attitude we have toward mental illness is affecting all of us, whether we know it or not. We all have times when it feels like life is kicking us while we’re down, and getting back up is one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do. It’s not fair of us to shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to mental health because it will impact us all in one way or another, whether that’s through ourselves or through someone else. We cannot continue to create a stigma for ourselves about mental illness because all that does is hurt us.