The Underlying Impact of “Triggered” Jokes

Danny Reinan, Staff Writer


A conversation is growing around microaggressions, particularly in activist spaces. Microaggressions are usually understood as subtle or everyday acts of discrimination against marginalized people, and the term can encapsulate things like comments that casually degrade marginalized groups or jokes at the expense of someone’s identity. Many people who make microaggressive statements do not intend harm or even realize that they are expressing innate bias, but that does not minimize the impact that these persistent forms of prejudice can have. Microaggressions are often insidious and difficult to detect and often appear insignificant, making them difficult to pinpoint and discuss and making it easy for people to deny their impact. Despite the progress that has been made in activist spaces surrounding microaggressions, there is one that I still see pop up often without acknowledgment – the “triggered” joke.

“Trigger” is a term used in mental health contexts to refer to a stimulus that brings up trauma in a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This word now has different connotations in the common vernacular, as it has been weaponized as a joke at the expense of people with PTSD. “Triggered” jokes take various forms, often being used by right-wingers to dismiss the concerns of activists who are trying to discuss societal ills. They’re also used more generally to demean people who are seen as overreacting to something small, and have begun to be used more casually by people without PTSD as being synonymous with being angry, upset or offended. Because the meaning of the word “triggered” has been so distorted and re-appropriated for harmful purposes, many people with PTSD no longer feel like they can use it to describe their experiences, even in medical settings. This stigma contributes to a culture that dismisses people with PTSD.

I am a person with PTSD, and the trauma that I live with impacts me every day of my life. As a result of my trauma, I have frequent nightmares, I dissociate, I struggle in my interpersonal relationships and yes, occasionally, I am triggered. Triggers manifest differently for every person with PTSD, but for me, I often have panic attacks when I am exposed to particularly graphic reminders of my trauma. The experience is terrifying. My pulse accelerates, I feel faint, all of my muscles tense up, my thoughts race, and in particularly bad moments, I go completely catatonic – unable to move, immobilized by thoughts and memories of my trauma. For me, the experience is akin to being trapped inside my own brain. 

When people who I trust make jokes about people who are “triggered,” it makes me feel like they’re making light of my experience. It makes me feel like they believe that my panic attacks are laughable, it makes me feel like my catatonia is a sign that I’m “overreacting,” and it makes me feel like they’re equating the terrifying experience of being triggered to simply being angry or upset. I’m sure that the people who make these jokes have the best of intentions and don’t even realize that I have trauma – but it makes me wonder whether I would be able to go to anyone for help or support if my trauma came up.

The image that people often have of someone with PTSD is a grizzled war veteran who experiences flashbacks and nightmares of violence. But the circumstances that can cause PTSD are so much more varied than that. A person’s trauma can spring from natural disasters, domestic abuse or sexual assault. Everyone is bound to have someone with PTSD in their communities, whether they know it or not, and as community members, everyone is obligated to create spaces that uplift and validate people living with trauma.

This article was originally published in the November 8, 2019 issue.