The term “triggered” has gotten a mixed reputation in recent years as it has come to be associated with the efforts of many colleges and universities to protect students from upsetting content or ideas. This new meaning of the term started with the best of intentions. Professors covering material that could be upsetting for those with a history of trauma began to warn students beforehand; hence the term “trigger warning.” Gradually, the term’s use broadened as college communities increasingly used it to warn students about the use of anything that might conceivably be upsetting. (This was unfortunate, as ultimately it is impossible to protect all students from ever being upset by the material, perspectives, or ideas presented in class.) However, triggers are a serious problem for people who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event.
Consider the example of a Vietnam veteran who returned home with PTSD after surviving combat during his tour of duty. It is quite common for such veterans, after returning home, to have strong negative responses to loud noises. These reminders of combat experience are “triggers” for PTSD symptoms. Symptoms can include flashbacks, dissociation, feeling constantly “on guard,” and other problems. The same mechanisms that create these problems for military veterans are at work for anyone else with PTSD — whether from a car accident, sexual assault, violent crime, or other traumatic event. For those with PTSD following an assault, being in a situation similar to one in which the assault occurred can trigger serious symptoms like those listed above, or include intense anger, a paralyzing fear, or depersonalization. For some rape survivors, being with a romantic partner who displays even the slightest hint of aggression can trigger the fight or flight response. The survivor will feel as if they are about to be assaulted again, even if rationally they know that’s not likely. This can happen even if the romantic partner is a spouse of several years who has never been violent or coercive at all.
Triggers for those with PTSD are real problems that can benefit from appropriate treatment. Treatment for PTSD will sometimes involve repeated exercises that help patients become more comfortable with reminders of the trauma. This process takes some time, but has been demonstrated to be effective for most people suffering from PTSD. The experience of being triggered following a traumatic event should not be confused with the experience of someone who is merely upset at things they’d rather not hear about.