In recent years, the word trigger has become freighted with significance, evoking a high-stakes emotional activation. The term is difficult to avoid in everyday conversation and on social media, and it frequently finds its way into the therapist’s consulting room. Patients routinely mention having been triggered when speaking of distressing feelings. However, I take pains to avoid using the term. Because the word trigger invokes a mechanism that sets off an inevitable chain of events, it distances us from our emotional reactions and leads us to feel powerless over them.
The first use of trigger cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1621, when the word referred to a mechanism that fired a gun. Deriving from the Dutch word trekker, which comes from the word to pull, trigger referred to a “device by means of which a catch or spring is released and a mechanism set in action,” according to the online etymological dictionary.
It seems that it took a couple of hundred years for trigger to be used figuratively, as in to set off a chain of events, in the sense that we might say that bad economic news can trigger a sell-off on Wall Street. With the inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, the term entered the lexicon of psychology, where it was used to denote stimuli that sparked intrusive memories of trauma.
Back then, the term trauma trigger had a relatively limited meaning, largely because trauma as a psychiatric concept was narrowly defined. Both terms have expanded to absorb ever more kinds of experience. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have noted, by the early 2000s concept creep had diluted the meaning of trauma to include not just extraordinary events that threatened life or physical integrity, but any incident that was experienced as subjectively painful. Now we say we are triggered merely when something disturbs us. The concept of trauma and the associated notion of the trigger, borrowed from the language of psychology, have seeped into our collective understanding of everyday distress.
It is unfortunate that trigger has become a dominant metaphor for describing times when a strong emotional reaction is evoked. A trigger is mechanical, not organic. It cannot be bargained with, related to or altered. A trigger is pulled by an external force, and its activation is inexorably followed by a cascade of events beyond our control. The term gives a sense of inevitability to whatever happens next and implies that we are powerless to do anything once these events have been set in motion.
The lack of agency evoked by the image is further heightened when we use a passive construction. When we say I’m triggered, we place ourselves in the role of a helpless bystander, acted upon by forces that we cannot influence. Our only defense is to avoid becoming triggered in the first place. Hence, trigger warnings. Implicit in the metaphor of trigger is the false idea that painful emotions are dangerous and need to be avoided.
Instead of avoiding our uncomfortable feelings and the things that set them off, life requires of us that we develop a relationship with those feelings and with our internal world. Recent psychological research indicates that trying to avoid negative emotions can contribute to psychological difficulties. As one psychologist writes:
Over time, avoidance becomes a prison, because after a while you begin to feel the need to avoid many situations, people, experiences, and places that may bring the negative emotion to mind, stir it, or remind you of it. And the more you avoid, the weaker you feel, the more your coping skills diminish, and the less of life you can experience.
When we attempt to avoid negative feelings, too much of our life energy is spent keeping our finger in the metaphorical dike, vigilant against any new leaks. Our avoidance strategies take on a life of their own and become our focus, replacing more legitimate, deeper concerns. Undergraduates worrying about trigger warnings rather than confronting the crisis and discomfort that is the very stuff of soul-making is just one example of this. C. G. Jung was referring to this substitution when he noted that “behind a neurosis there is so often concealed all the natural and necessary suffering the patient has been unwilling to bear.”
According to a Jungian understanding, the overwhelming feelings that mysteriously seep up from the swamp of the unconscious and temporarily overthrow our egos are not inevitable, mechanistic forces best avoided altogether, but essential aspects of ourselves that are seeking to be known by us. We are called to confront our complexes. Engaging our complexes—those old wounds around which we have strong feelings—can lead to psychological growth. Perhaps, when we are triggered, we could take this as a sign that something in our psyche needs us to attend to it. We could see it as a call to a deeper engagement with our emotional life.
After all, emotions are guides that help us navigate life’s seas and are a rich source of information about what is going on inside us—and inside others. Affective neuroscientists have noted that people with brain lesions that impair emotion are unable to make good decisions, even though their reasoning abilities are entirely intact. They have posited that consciousness itself arises in large part from our emotional experience. Emotions are also a meaningful way of accessing the wisdom of our bodies. Feelings begin in the body. Neuroscientists have articulated that “feelings are mental experiences of body states.” Emotional activation is a signal from our bodies that we need to pay attention to something. It is an urgent invitation to attend to our subjective, in-the-moment experience. The goal should not be to avoid the excitation, but to embrace the exploration that it asks of us. Believing that feelings need to be avoided makes an enemy of one’s body and imagination.
Avoidance of unpleasant emotions robs us of crucial information and a sense of embodied aliveness and it strips us of our agency by relieving us of responsibility for our reactions. Jung writes that when we refuse to accept our suffering, we stay stuck, “A depression can change only if we are able to endure and accept it. We can change nothing if we haven’t accepted it. If we resist, it will only get worse. In accepting the depression, we are no longer able to hold the whole world responsible for it, and then it can change.” Concern over being triggered stems from a belief that we can and should avoid unpleasant emotions. The necessary correlate to this belief, as Jung astutely notes, is that we are mere victims, and the world out there is responsible for our discomfort.
But what of those who have endured real trauma? Shouldn’t we be careful to avoid triggering them? This may be impossible, as we can’t predict what will provoke the involuntary flood of intrusive memories and feelings. For example, a client of mine was held at gunpoint by soldiers in a war-torn area. She experienced a cascade of terrifying memories upon hearing someone chopping wood. The sound just happened to have the same rhythm as the soldiers beating on her door with the butts of their guns.
Moreover, treatment for PTSD involves not avoidance of stimuli that remind the person of trauma, but exposure to those things. Exposure works because, over time, the person becomes desensitized to the stimulus that provokes the distressing memories. While therapeutic exposure is done in a controlled way with the aid of a trained clinician, in general, encouraging PTSD sufferers to prioritize avoiding triggers would likely result in an increase in symptoms and worse psychosocial functioning.
The focus on being triggered obscures the difference between traumatic events that were genuinely life-threatening and dangerous, and the memories of such events, which, however distressing to recall, present no threat at all to one’s physical safety. This truth was first made explicit to me by my clinical supervisor at the Veterans’ Administration. Each time a Vietnam veteran experienced highly distressing memories of his time in combat, she would gently remind him that he had survived the traumatic incident and was now safe.
The conflation of experience and memory is an example of the cognitive distortion known as emotional reasoning. We assume that, because we feel something strongly, it must be true. But, of course, feelings aren’t facts. Feeling unsafe doesn’t necessarily mean that one is unsafe. Embedded in the metaphor of trigger is an uncritical acceptance of this distortion—that feeling unsafe means that there is an actual threat to my safety. Succumbing to emotional reasoning fallacies is more common in adolescence and young adulthood, due in part to the fact that the limbic system—tasked with processing lower order emotion—develops more quickly than the prefrontal cortex. Adults help young people move away from such thinking errors by gently pointing out the fallacy, not by reinforcing distorted cognitions.
Before trigger became ubiquitous, we used to speak of becoming upset. This is also a metaphor, but one that I find much more richly descriptive than trigger. It implies dislocation, disorientation and an overturning of expectations. It colorfully depicts the embodied experience of finding ourselves in the midst of a surprising and unpleasant emotional turmoil that feels out of our control—without the implication that outside forces are to blame, contained in the term trigger.
Life calls for us to learn to manage our feelings, not avoid them. Managing emotions takes self-compassion and practice. Above all, it requires that we turn towards our inner world with humility and curiosity, without the petty demand for assurances that our conscious attitudes won’t be overturned or upset by what we find there. Only a willingness to endure and experience all our feelings allows us to meet life on its own terms.