Language is incredibly important to me. I listen for how people phrase their lives, and within those words are clues to how they speak to and of themselves and what their inner narratives consist of. I flinch at careless words used by those in power, those in the press, those in the law, those who write the policies that govern our nation. Words that subtly reflect unaware and unexplored views of the world steeped in beliefs that represent only some of the people.

I wrote my honours thesis and my PhD about words – how we tell our stories of gender for bodies and minds that don’t fit neatly into the binary of male/female, stories that are happily now not limited to a DSM-5 diagnosis (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to validate treatment. Words build worlds within us and around us and they matter.

Language is alive, it is adopted, co-opted, changed by usage, culture and time. It comes in and out of fashion, some words hanging around, cemented into our vocabulary, others slip in and quietly slip away.

Some of the words that have arrived in our language are the words of psychotherapy and counselling. As therapists this is a good thing – having a growing awareness within culture of terms like attachment, elevation, person-centred, regulation and dysregulation, anxiety, panic attacks, all of these help us understand and align more deeply to some of the hidden disorders that impact so many people’s lives.

Then there are other words that become mainstream which are problematic. Words like ‘trigger’, a word I hear used all the time, and it concerns me. Much like people saying ‘literally’ when they mean ‘actually’ and ‘It’s all good’ when describing some diabolical situation they are suffering through, being triggered is a very specific term for a trauma related response, one that has some significant ramifications for the person who is triggered.

A trigger when it happens to someone with a trauma history is described by counsellor Lindsay Braman, who created the illustrations in this blog, as like falling through a trapdoor in the brain.

As humans, we don’t like being exposed to upsetting information or situations, we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, vulnerable, emotionally open. It pushes us perilously close to our sympathetic nervous system being elevated as our primal brains begin to stir into action to protect us and keep us safe. This feeling ISN’T a trigger, it is just the discomfort of being human. Sometimes extreme discomfort, but it isn’t a trigger.

Trauma

We see ‘trigger warning’ at the beginning of magazine articles. I’ve heard children describe their discussions with their parents as being triggering and vice versa. I’ve seen people refer to an outfit that doesn’t meet their approval as being a trigger. Nope. None of these are triggers. And while it’s hard to reel in language once it’s jumped the clinical into the mainstream, misusing trigger as casually pathologizing everyday irritations is problematic for those people who are actually experiencing being triggered and are already marginalised and often isolated.

Perhaps we need to start specifically talking about trauma triggers to place the language within the lived experience. For people with trauma, it is an incredibly personalised world, and their trauma triggers can be anything: sensory, like smells and sounds; visual; situational; the most unexpected moment.

As therapists we can work with the client and their trigger once it’s happened, help them befriend it, understand it and help to integrate it so the trapdoor reduces to a little crack or a stumble, not a disembodied falling into a moment of dissociation that seems unrecoverable and often retraumatising.

Time to rethink your language around being triggered, and rethink how you use language more generally. What are your key words and phrases that are subtly reinforcing belief systems that are at best unhelpful, and at worst building neural pathways to not being enough?

It’s a subtle, mindful, and conscious process, asking you to pay attention, to catch yourself, and be kind to yourself as you gently redirect to a word that is stronger, more accurate and real. Instead of using the word ‘triggered’, you could try using emotions: that conversation upset me, made me feel angry, raised fear in me.

Explicitly naming how you feel also removes the numbing or bypassing of your actual experience – you are sitting in the actual discomfort, and in doing so, are bringing yourself closer to your own reality and healing. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above resonates for you in light of your own situation.

Photo by Jo Hilton on Unsplash

Words – language, song, text, dialogue, story. They all involve words. Words can also be embodied. I can’t imagine a world without words. I dream in words, think in words, worry in words, communicate using words. I really do create my world from the words I think, feel and embody.

Disclaimer: This article contains the views of the author and is not a replacement for therapeutic support. Please reach out to a registered therapist if you are experiencing distress and require assistance.