Question: I keep seeing the words “trigger” and “trauma.” This was never a problem when I was growing up. What’s going on here?
It is true that Trauma, Triggers, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are popping up more often in the media these days. Trauma can refer to a physical injury or wound, but lately it has referred more to the psychological effects of disturbing experiences. These experiences can include sexual or physical abuse; violence in the home, school, or community; natural disasters such as a hurricane; war; suicide or homicide of a family member; poverty, and social neglect.
Unfortunately, these experiences are common. According to the American Psychological Association, 39- 85% of children witness community violence, and up to 66% are victims. Youth exposure to sexual abuse is 25-43%. PTSD rates for boys is just under 4%, and for girls is just over 6%. At least half of all adults have been exposed to significant trauma, with close to 10% experiencing PTSD in their lifetime.
I do not believe the overall exposure to trauma is increasing. Rates will continue to go up and down over time, because of factors including war, famine, and disasters. However, what is increasing is our awareness of PTSD and the multiple consequences of trauma. If you grew up before the Internet became ubiquitous, it makes sense that trauma and triggers would seem like new concepts. Now that we have electronic media, the average person is more aware of disasters all over the world, and so the conversation of trauma is becoming more widespread.
Trauma triggers are experiences or events that cause a person to remember, or even re-experience the traumatic event. For example, if you’ve gone through a tornado, then watching a movie about tornados could “trigger” the terror that you felt before. Triggers can also be smells or sounds. This is normal. Have you ever heard an old song on the radio and had a flash of a memory? Or smelled food and remembered a family celebration? These are triggers, just not necessarily traumatic ones.
Memory triggers are normal for everyone, but for many people, traumatic triggers are a part of everyday life. If you have memories that are disturbing and causing a problem in your life, talk to someone about it. The 24/7 Crisis Help Line for Wayne County is 800- 241-4949.
Dr. Carmen McIntyre is the Chief Medical Officer at Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. If you have a question for Dr. McIntyre, please submit it to AskTheDr@dwmha.com.