Everyone’s susceptible — not just “snowflakes.”
My hometown’s Facebook group has been filled with agitation and complaints about people not wearing masks in public. Included in the comments on a recent post like this were two succinct words from an older man: “Stay triggered.” It was intentionally dismissive, which is bad enough on a normal day but horrifying during an international crisis (because ideally, this might be a time when we work together for the common good rather than try to silence each other with pithy insults). But it was his use of the word “trigger” in particular that caught my attention, since my own history of PTSD and work as a healer has given me some experience with trauma and its explosive-sounding symptom.
The word trigger, with implied or actual air quotes, has become weaponized snark. This is proof of either ignorance about trauma or simple cruelty. I’m not sure what to do about the latter, but in an attempt to dispel the former, let’s unpack what triggering really is.
Rev. Thomas Taylor, LMSW and pastoral psychotherapist as well as former fire department chaplain, has worked with dozens of 9/11 first responders and specializes in traumatic stress. According to Taylor, trauma is the normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. “How we adapt to crisis is often about our early childhood, and our skills or lack thereof. Most people think their childhood experience can be compartmentalized or that it’s in the past and they don’t have to worry about it. Or sometimes they don’t even remember it. Memories get blocked out.
“Trauma is something that happens to us from the outside that affects our interior space, our mind, body, and central nervous system. And the body either fights, flees, or freezes in response. For the most part, in early childhood you don’t have a chance to run away or fight, so usually what happens is we freeze. And that’s the worst thing because the energy gets stuck inside. When animals feel anxious, they will shake it out of their systems. Humans don’t usually do that, we don’t have that mechanism, and so we internalize. That’s why early childhood trauma is so important when we talk about triggers. If there was a good, solid foundation at home, people are much more likely to go safely through difficult experiences later in life.”