Are we trigger-happy? Recent events suggest so.
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
Dating back to World War II, the colloquial term trigger-happy emerged as a description of being overly ready to shoot at anything at any time without much provocation. It seemed to come out of the first US offensive against the Japanese, as published in the Omaha World-Herald on Tuesday, October 13th, 19421:
“ . . . reported that the Japs were jittery, chattering nervously with one another, and wasting many rounds of ammunition by ‘trigger happy’ shooting at shadows.”
Now, we may be entering a new phase of being trigger-happy in our escalation of gun violence in the United States. Over the last few days, the major media has covered several people who have been shot, 1 fatally, for making a minor error that stirred up someone else.
-Two cheerleaders were shot by a man outside of a Texas supermarket after one mistakenly got in his car
-A 16-year-old boy was shot for showing up at the front door of the wrong house in Kansas City.
-A car pulled into the wrong driveway in upstate New York and a woman in it was killed by gunfire.
-When a basketball rolled into a neighbor’s year, the man started to shoot at, and wound, a 6-year-old girl and her father.
How to explain this cluster? In an article by Holly Thomas in Katie Couric Media, “How Misinterpreting ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws Can Turn Deadly,” the psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl referred to our “stand your ground” laws, which some could think justifies self-defense with any perceived threat.2 These laws exist in about 30 states and relate to the centuries old idea that someone’s home is their castle and they have the right to protect it.
Yet, even if so, why so many events in the news now? Are they more common now, or is the media more alert to cover them?
Triggers has become a commonly used term in psychiatry in reference to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here, it refers to anything that reminds the victim of a prior psychologically unresolved trauma. It is unique to the traumatized individual and can be a sound, smell, clothing, or many other intrusive reminders. Memories and feelings from the prior trauma come back without warning and the triggered individual feels in danger once again, with an ensuing fight, flight, or freeze response. With fight, that can be a verbal threat, physical fighting, or using a weapon. It commonly occurs in some male sports and nowadays in driving. All the recent perpetrators were male, so there must be some hormonal or cultural toxic masculinity component to their predominance.
Then, with Earth Day looming tomorrow, there are microplastics, which seem to be entering our bodies and crossing the blood-brain barrier at ever higher rates. Do they have anything to do with irritability, either increasing or decreasing it?
Certainly, it is unlikely that all the perpetrators in this recent shooting have PTSD, but they likely have some degree of mental instability and impulsiveness from various causes. Moreover, they all—and we all—are being increasingly exposed to gun violence, divisiveness, and other perceived threats. Racism has been brought up in these recent events. Racial differences have been on both sides of the violence. Besides trigger remnants of trauma, individuals vary in their self-control abilities, which can provide a window to cognitively reassess the perceived danger.
What we do in psychotherapy with triggers is to help the individual to recognize their personal triggers and reframe the current degree of risk, as well as to learn new coping strategies. Without therapy, journaling whenever you notice undue feelings of panic or flashbacks could provide insight.
However, this particular trigger-happy outbreak may also reflect how much of a traumatized country we have become. To lessen that causative factor, political leadership needs to find ways to reduce our divisiveness and our access to legal weapons. We in psychiatry have an educational opportunity to teach the public via public service announcements.
Beyond these interventions, perhaps we need a reframing of the very term “trigger-happy.” Psychologically, it is really trigger-scared, is it not?
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.
1. Tréguer P. ‘Trigger-happy’: meaning and origin. World Histories. Accessed April 21, 2023. https://wordhistories.net/2022/01/16/trigger-happy/
2. Thomas H. How misinterpreting “stand your ground” laws can turn deadly. Katie Couric Media. April 20, 2023. Accessed April 21, 2023. https://katiecouric.com/news/how-misinterpreting-stand-your-ground-laws-can-turn-deadly/