‘I’m triggered!’

I’m happy that social media is now being used to spread mental health education. Prioritising psychological well-being is finally being seen as legitimate and necessary for overall quality of life, and experiencing mental ill-health is slowly being destigmatised and acknowledged as debilitating and worthy of treatment. However, with this broad-based awareness comes limitations. Social media is reductive by nature. Characters are capped and app design rewards the briefest of attention spans. As such, there’s little space and tolerance for the depth and nuance that psychological concepts deserve and need, making it easy for mental health discourse to muddy these concepts in a way that botches their actual definition. It’s a phenomenon called conceptual bracket creep, and it’s particularly relevant to how the terms trauma and triggers are currently bandied about.

The Real Definitions

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, a trauma is defined as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. The recollection of that trauma is painful and occurs in the form of re-experiencing symptoms (intrusive thoughts and images, distressing memories, flashbacks, and nightmares) that effect the person’s ability to stay connected to the present moment and create extreme overwhelm and/or stress. Re-experiencing symptoms are usually unwanted and involuntary and occur in response to triggers that are internal and external stimuli in the individual’s environment. 

In the translation from academic walls to everyday living, conceptual bracket creep occurs, and the subtleties of interpretation are lost. Clinical terms like trauma and triggers bleed into popular culture. Jokingly, people refer to a power cut during their online game, the discontinuation of their favourite denim brand’s skinny jean, and their barista mistaking oat milk for soy milk in their latte as ‘traumatic’. Anything that results in the smallest of discomforts is now a ‘trigger’. And while I’m the first to promote the therapeutic benefits of humour and have regularly been known to poke fun at the absurdities of our human experience, we must recognise that not every unpleasant life event is a trauma, and not every tiny annoyance rates as a trigger. 

Triggers and Parenting

Now that we’ve cleared up the definitions, let’s look at triggers and parenting. When it comes to the way you parent your littles, you may very well be legitimately ‘triggered’. You may experience uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and body sensations that relate to painful memories of the way your grown ups parented you, triggered by setting boundaries, showing love and affection, and modelling effective regulation to your own child. As you do so, being triggered can occur in a way that you repeat what was done to you, or in the discomfort of realising that the way you were parented was not okay.

Of course, not everyone has parents who were ineffective enough to mean that their children will be triggered when they are adults trying to parent their own children. But it’s worth noticing any discomfort you might feel as your children grow, and how your interactions with them when things are challenging are coloured by your own childhood (especially the way you were shown love and affection – or not, disciplined, and what you were rewarded and punished for).