December Buzzword of the Month: Triggered


Buzzwords uncovered: Clarifying original definitions…because for some reason we need to do that nowadays.

By Caroline Anderson, MMFT

Triggered and Trauma

‼️ TRIGGER WARNING ‼️ This buzzword of the month has the capacity to “trigger” the “triggered.” If you test your resiliency and read the entirety of the article you might just learn that you are in fact, not triggered—which in itself, might be triggering.


Pre 21st-century, “triggered” was once a non-controversial word used to describe an event that involuntarily transported an individual back to a traumatic experience, (i.e a gunshot might be a trigger for a war veteran with PTSD.)  In this day and age, there has been a radical paradigm shift in what the word “triggered” means to the layman. Let’s break this down. Trauma, the source of a trigger, is also a word suffering from 21st century “buzzworditis.” It has evolved into a terminological fad that even some psycho-experts (get it? “psycho” experts) are guilty of overgeneralizing.

Frequency of the word “triggered” in literature from 1800 to 2018

Frequency of the word “triggered” in literature from 1800 to 2018

Apparently the word popularized around 1940, likely due to popularization of psychology, so we won’t even mention how bloody awful the 1800s were and how folks of that time were likely referring to the Civil War as “unfortunate” or “bothersome” (insert disapproving emoji). All I will mention here is that the word’s frequency is increasing so rapidly that you’d think traumacalypse had commenced which has me asking - what’s the next 100 years going to look like?

The DSM-5 (the holy grail of mental health diagnoses)  defines trauma as an exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or sexual violence via direct exposure, witnessing in person, directly by learning about a close friend or family member exposed to trauma, or repeated or extreme indirect exposure to the details of traumatic event. Soooooo - it is HIGHLY unlikely that your boss not brushing their teeth was traumatic for you—even if they did get all up in your face. Yeah, it’s unpleasant and stressful, buuuuut it is doubtful that it has you concerned for your’s or another’s physical safety. 

Now a’days we have the “small t” trauma, easily definable by Google searches and random blogs as an accumulation of smaller “every day” or less pronounced distressing events which are not life or bodily-integrity threatening. While being punched is different than being stabbed, multiple punches in the same spot over a good amount of time can still be harmful—maybe even super harmful. MEANING, “small t” trauma is still important to address. Ideally, you want to empathizing with yourself and others annnnnd we still need to distinguish it as DIFFERENT than the big T Trauma. Let me explain…

Although calling something stressful “traumatic” can feel ultra validating (like YEAH—I deserve some pity!), there are downsides. If everything uncomfortable is labeled as a “trauma,” then the significance gets watered down—and it becomes potentially insulting. Imagine having survived a violent assault and overhearing some stranger claiming to have been “triggered” when their favorite nail polish was out of stock. The bottom line is, call your stressful circumstance what it is. If it is not big T then let me suggest you refrain from loosely throw out the word “trauma.”

CAUTION: TRIGGER WARNING: When it comes down to it, someone’s cat running away for an hour is a DIFFERENT experience than someone who was assaulted at gunpoint.

Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”: If you call everything a trauma, the day when one truly occurs you won’t even be able to tell anyone because “trauma” has become a meaningless buzzword that no one really empathizes with.

Anywho, next time you feel triggered because your dream shoes aren’t on sale anymore - make sure that “trigger” is stemming from a legitimate “trauma,” if not - consider using words like this event was disappointing, annoying, frustration, dumb… Until next time, whip those dictionaries out and start using them before the whole world turns into one big trigger fest.