“Triggered” - the Joke and the Reality
The word “triggered” has become shorthand for “wrongly upset about something,” especially when discussing issues of social justice on the internet or discussing genuinely distressing topics. In situations where I was asking for the joke to be retired, defining it as I have has earned me the title of Social Justice Warrior a number of times. When "triggered" is utilized in the context of humor, it is harmful, even when it is not about social justice or shaming people for their empathy. If someone is actually wrongly or excessively upset about something, equating that experience with being triggered does very real harm to people with PTSD and other trauma-related mental health conditions.
Being triggered is not being upset or angry about something inconsequential; it is a very specific trauma response to very specific stimuli. Being triggered is a very real and sometimes dangerous experience that has become a joke because those stimuli can be different for everyone; meaning that some may seem valid while others can seem innocuous. For example, self-harm or suicide in media is an easy trigger to understand, and the outcome of not warning about that content is understandably dangerous. Meanwhile, someone else may be triggered by the Jeep logo and the response to being triggered can be the same. The point is, you never know what could trigger a trauma response.
When I say “trauma response”, I am not just referring to self-harm behaviors. Possible responses include flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, increased anxiety/depression /OCD /any other mental health condition, or dissociation and severe memory loss. That list is clearly not equivalent to being “wrongly upset”. The results of actually being triggered are real and dangerous, and the use of the term as a joke or insult has had very real, very dangerous consequences.
The prevalence of the “triggered” joke has turned trigger warnings in media and in general into a political argument, with some claiming that they “restrict free speech” and that people who are triggered are simply “too emotional” and should “get over it.” I want to clarify the difference between a trigger warning and a content warning. Trigger warnings are more specific and more personalized. For example, if you were triggered by the Jeep logo, you could ask for a trigger warning from content creators or teachers/ professors in the classroom if they were to show movies. They often address broadly triggering things, like self-harm mentions, suicide, or sexual violence.
Content warnings, on the other hand, are not related directly to people with trauma and avoiding trigger responses. Instead, their purpose is to protect younger people, people with specific disabilities, or people who don’t want to interact with a specific kind of content. Content warnings include warnings for flashing lights and bright contrasting colors that could cause epileptic seizures, sexual content that is not appropriate for younger children, and warnings related to sensitive content that one might want to avoid, including body horror, nudity, curse words, and gore/violence. One example of content warnings are those present on music albums that denote explicit content or the warnings before movies that explain the rating (E, PG, PG-13, R).
Trigger warnings also usually include the specific time or place in a piece of media where the trigger occurs, making the content broadly accessible. Content warnings, on the other hand, advise individuals away from media that includes the content they do not want to see. While content warnings make media consumption as a whole more accessible, it does nothing for the specific pieces of media.
Accessibility is incredibly important, and I do not mean to write off content warnings and the important role that they play. Rather, I want to highlight the importance of trigger warnings and the position they hold in furthering accessibility. Making trigger warnings a joke devalues the very real improvements they are making in the accessibility of media. Those who have triggers and experience their associated effects need the accessibility afforded by trigger warnings in much the same way people with physical disabilities need wheelchair ramps and Deaf people need interpreters. All of these things are basic steps to create an equitable society.