What Does ‘Triggering’ Actually Mean for Mental Illness?

When we talk about mental health and surviving traumatic events, we often hear the phrase “triggering,” but what does it actually mean and why is it so important?

What is a Trigger?

You’ve probably seen the phrase “trigger warning” pop up on a lot of sites across the Internet, particularly in connection to things like self-harm and a range of other mental-health related topics. Indeed, a few weeks ago I included a trigger warning on a post I wrote about my own suicidal thoughts. But what does it actually mean to be “triggered?”

Triggering is a phenomenon that medical science recognizes usually in conjunction with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is where an event or a situation, from something as dramatic as a car crash playing out before our eyes, or seemingly as trivial as the smell of something burning, causes a person to relive the events of a traumatic episode.

Outside of PTSD, however, there isn’t a scientific consensus around the notion of a “trigger” and, when it comes to other conditions, it isn’t recognized as an appropriate descriptor for medical discussion. That said, we still use the concept of triggering in a more general sense.

Today, we may regularly see trigger warnings on a range of news articles relating to rape, violent attacks, domestic abuse and things like this. That said, our usage of the term has grown over the past decade, and it now encompasses a slightly different meaning as well. These don’t relate to the specific circumstances that might trigger, say, a depressive episode, but rather material that, because of its content, may risk contributing to or even causing a relapse.

To give an example, most people would probably be affected by a television storyline about someone self-harming because of unresolved emotional or psychological issues. It’s natural to feel distressed about this. However, for someone who has those mental health issues themselves, there is a danger that they may then be “triggered” into self-harming, particularly if the storyline is graphic in how it depicts the self-abuse.

Why Are Trigger Warnings Controversial and Are They Helpful?

Placing trigger warnings has become controversial because of how liberally they have been applied in the online media sphere. There is an argument to be made that we should be disciplined in how we apply trigger warnings to ensure that we’re not watering down the meaning of that term and thereby risking making it meaningless. For instance, applying it to material that is obviously not going to be suitable for someone who is recovering from a mental health episode, for instance a book that is about a character who tried to take her own life, hardly seems necessary. Common sense should prevail.

On the other side of that spectrum, a mere mention of a problem or a traumatic event is unlikely to trigger someone. What we’re really talking about is graphic descriptions or depictions that are mentioned or shown in a wider media piece where their presence might not be immediately obvious or easily seen by someone prior to starting to read or view the material.

That said, some people who suffer PTSD or other mental health problems do not find trigger warnings helpful. They contend that they are part of a victimization culture and are really about wrapping people in cotton wool. Those criticisms are perhaps less than compelling because that’s more about personal feelings about trigger warning use, however a more pressing concern is that trigger warnings may inadvertently feed into someone’s depression or psychosis. That’s because by using the key phrase “trigger warning” we can quickly and very easily navigate the Internet to find disturbing material. For some people whose mental illness includes the compulsion to habitually look at such material, perhaps as a form of punishing themselves or as part of an obsessive compulsive need, the danger there is obvious.

However, there is a lot of support for trigger warnings and for general trigger awareness, particularly in the feminist blogosphere who when talking about sexual assaults and rape feel that not only is it courteous to give a trigger warning, it may be vital so as not to risk someone reading an article or blog post, reliving those traumatic events and having their recovery set back or even completely stalled. The same goes for the mental health sphere, where several mental health charities have gone to the trouble of creating specific guidelines for how journalists, writers and the wider media might report on or depict stories involving mental health problems, as well as those relating to violence or sexual assaults or past physical traumas.

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