Trauma is Not Just “Being Offended”

Trauma: triggered vs. offendedIf you mix up trauma with having a thin skin, you may be hurting someone you love!

Chances are that you know someone who has experienced trauma. You may have been through a traumatic experience yourself. An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. So, we all have a responsibility to understand trauma and at the very least, avoid making it worse.

Trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. Abuse causes trauma. So can family separation. Sexual harassment can cause trauma, and sexual violence nearly always does.

“Being triggered” is experiencing a traumatic response to a current event based on what happened in the past. A traumatic response to a “me, too” story might be:  someone who hears the story today feels like they did when they were raped (traumatized) at some earlier time. This feeling can be a deep, detailed remembering that’s sensory as well as mental. 

A traumatic response can also cause a physical reaction, where the person who is triggered feels like they are being raped again—at the moment of remembering it. They can get “stuck” in the feeling of being unsafe for minutes, hours, or days.

Now, that is different from being mad about a “me, too” story. 

Hearing a story about a person being subjected to sexual harassment might make any decent person feel mad for hours. They might even wake up in the middle of the night with the pithy retort they wish they’d have come up with when they heard the story. The latter person is not triggered — they are offended, outraged, feeling strongly about injustice.

When the second person uses “triggered” to describe their outrage, they are diminishing the psychological damage done to the first person, where the first person still carries the burden of revisiting a violent assault.

You want to be the ally of a person who’s experienced trauma, not add to their pain. So, don’t say “triggered” when you mean “offended.”

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