Why We Shouldn’t Throw the Phrase “I’m Triggered” Around

Guthrie Edson
Guthrie Edson

For college students all across the country, classes are starting back up, and it can be both an exciting and nerve-racking time of year. New classes, new syllabi, new routines, and new friends/classmates are a feature of this time of year, and adjusting to that takes time. It can also be difficult when you’re forced to think about experiences from years past, both inside and outside the classroom. 

At the start of every semester, I always hear a few of my peers say they’re “triggered” or that a particular room “gives [them] PTSD” because of a class in a room where they previously had a bad professor, or hard class in general. While I doubt these peers of mine have any ill intent by saying such phrases, what they don’t realize is their choice of words makes light of real mental health conditions people experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s very stigmatizing to hear your struggles be basically turned into a joke. I know because I’ve experienced this firsthand. 

In the spring of my sophomore year, I had a class which, for the most part, I enjoyed. We had a funny professor who used cool examples to teach us the material and made lots of jokes each time, but unfortunately, that’s not the main thing I remember about the class. Towards the end of the semester, we were about to take an exam, which I felt well-prepared for. However, when I took one last look at my phone before shutting it off and putting it in my backpack, I saw something on social media that caused me to have a panic attack. As the TA handed out the exam, I felt powerless. There was no way of backing out all of a sudden, so I had no choice but to take the exam while feeling dissociated, and honestly terrified. While I managed to ground myself enough so that I could finish, I walked out of the room feeling both rattled and embarrassed. Rattled because of what I had seen on my phone, and embarrassed because I was surrounded by my classmates, who may or may not have noticed me dissociating in front of everyone. Although I actually did well on the exam, it was not my finest hour by any stretch. 

In the weeks that followed, I tried to put that in my rear view mirror and forget about it, but once the first week of my junior year arrived, it was impossible to do so because I had a class in that same room. The smell and feel of the room made me feel tense for the first few weeks, even though I was in a class with my favorite professor and surrounded by lots of friends. I also was forced to think about how embarrassed I felt after the panic attack, especially because nothing that I was worried about actually wound up happening. Eventually, I told a close friend in the class why I was so tense, and later in the semester, some other friends encouraged me to get professional help, which I found through my college’s counseling center. It wasn’t easy at first, but once I started going, I was able to unpack the intrusive thoughts that caused my panic attack in the first place, and thanks to that, I made it through the last three classes of the semester completely grounded, something I didn’t think would be possible just sixteen weeks earlier. I don’t remember many other times when I’ve been prouder of myself. 

So the next time you’re about to talk about something that you don’t like, think about who your audience might be when choosing your words. Flashbacks, panic attacks, and dissociation are all very common, and to those who deal with them, feeling “triggered” is not the same as simply recalling a bad experience with a professor or class; it may mean reliving traumatic experiences. Survivors of sexual violence may have flashbacks to their assault. People who have lost loved ones may begin feeling sad for seemingly no reason. Secondary trauma is very common in advocacy when we feel the weight of others’ stories. These are natural responses that the body has to trauma, but they can nonetheless feel very scary to experience. Saying you’re “triggered” when you really aren’t writes off the experiences of your peers, and contributes to the stigma that we’re trying to end every day.