The overuse of the psychological term “triggered” is yet one more example of a legitimate term being ruined by people who are trying to overdramatize either their own discomfort, or the evil of persons they dislike. The idea of a trigger for PTSD symptoms is quite real. People who have been near many explosions in a war zone may have exaggerated startle reflexes to explosions or even very loud sounds when they get to safe places, and this can persist for years. Others do not find their nervous systems responding that way at all, even after repeated exposures. Responses vary. People who were beaten or molested, especially as children, may overreact, either in fight or in flight, to people shoving them or threatening to them years later. Yet while no one would find such memories pleasant, others are not so viscerally affected. Smells can be triggering, and actually provoke flashbacks. Come to think of it, “flashback” is another word that has been cheapened. It originally referred to more than just being reminded of something and thinking about it. A flashback is an involuntary reliving of a situation in which it seems real. While this PTSD symptom can diminish in both frequency and intensity over time without treatment, it sometimes requires training and effort to minimize its effect.
Music can quickly and effectively bring us back to a time or an event. Usually the effect is mild and pleasurable – or pain-pleasurable about nostalgia* or a lost love – but sometimes it can be more intense and unpleasant.
Triggered was a well-chosen term, conveying both the automaticity and the intensity of the effect. When I encounter the term in modern usage is seems to be no more than a synonym for “bothered,” or “reminds me of something I don’t like.” One cannot be “triggered” by a MAGA hat. A claim to being triggered by a KuKluxKlan hood would require exposure to an actual traumatic event, such as having a cross burned on your lawn when you were little. Not common. Mere exposure to something that one disagrees with is not a trauma, and it is a terrible disservice to those who have actual trauma still circulating in their brains. Not only does it dilute compassion for those who deserve it more, it may actually make their lives worse by expanding the situations which provoke the response. Imagine a young woman who has been seriously sexually assaulted in high school and has flashbacks of the event in limited situations, such as someone shoving her against a wall. To be surrounded in college by those who frequently refer to less intense, perhaps even very minor events as being rape-equivalent is to reduce her threshold for being reminded of her serious event. Young and vulnerable people will sometimes even seek out such pathological companions in the hope of finding those who will be sympathetic and understand.
I actually do find an event that was ridiculed as a possible trigger to be at least possible. Rapes are described in Greek mythology and literature, especially in Pindar. There was a college woman who claimed that reading about a rape in one of the “Odes (there are a few nominees) took her by surprise and triggered a flashback memory of her own assault. I think when people are criticizing Pindar and heroic Greek culture in general on this score they are describing outrage, not triggering, and I resent that, for reasons described above. It seems of a piece with the pattern of overdramatisation I deplore. Yet I don’t rule out that a rape in literature, in poetry, in music, in art could be triggering in a clinical sense. Art is powerful. That’s one of its purposes. It is supposed to resonate with life events and not be separate from them. Most people consider classical literature boring, yawn-worthy, not any possible grounds for serious identification. I wouldn’t be so sure. In artistic expressions of “The Rape of the Sabine Women” those victims look horrified, and it is hard not to feel pity and horror oneself, even while remembering that this is only a painting or sculpture and is not an event that is currently happening to real people. The girls at my high school got pretty involved in the cinematic version of “Romeo and Juliet” when it came out. There are parts of Genesis and Exodus that one winces to read. A person used to immersing herself in the story and poetry, taken unawares, might indeed be triggered by Pindar. I know little of the story and nothing of the young woman. I onlynote that it’s possible.
*The number of songs which bring tears to my eyes grows every year.