It is a well known fact that some situations may trigger flashbacks of trauma in PTSD sufferers, like going to some places, or seeing particular scenes in movies or TV.

Lately I've seen many mentions of trigger "words". The idea is that, for example, reading the word "rape" would induce a flashback in a rape victim.

Example of such a claim in which the word is "bitch". (Note this has 404ed since the question was asked).

I am skeptical of the idea since the Wikipedia page for trauma trigger does not mention it, and even contains more than one instance of the word "rape". This feminism wikia also agrees that the correct usage of "trigger warning" has to do with the content and not simply the usage of a word.

In fact, it's not uncommon to find people with PTSD complaining that this kind of "trigger words" trivialize the real mental illness and its victims.

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    The referenced feminism wikia page also says, "The phrase "trigger warning" may itself be triggering to some trauma survivors."
    – ChrisW
    Jan 2, 2014 at 23:43
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    @ChrisW: That's what I have always wondered about. Does Ironic Process Theory make trigger warnings self-fulfilling?
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 3, 2014 at 0:29
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    I think the issue is when one see it out of the blue, in a place he/she did not expect to see it. When reading article about rape it's OK but when browsing programming site and suddenly seeing the "R" word... this can be a problem in my opinion. It's like suddenly bumping into the rapist on the street vs. seeing him in TV or in a picture where you're prepared to see him. Jan 3, 2014 at 0:35
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    @Sklivvz Ah, but then there are two claims: 1) "trigger warnings are used to prevent flashbacks" and 2) "a single word can cause a flashback" We have clear evidence that people believe the first claim (and it would make an interesting question). Your question is about the second claim.
    – Peter
    Jan 14, 2017 at 17:56
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    @Sklivvz "Does this happen" requires only 1 case to be proof positive, IIRC.
    – Magisch
    Jan 16, 2017 at 12:50

1 Answer 1


Yes, according to the definition of 'trigger' given by Oxford Dictionaries:


verb [with object]

1.3 (especially of something read, seen, or heard) distress (someone), typically as a result of arousing feelings or memories associated with a particular traumatic experience:

(emphasis mine)

Oxford Dictionaries Online, 'trigger'

Trauma-survivors report that a single word can be sufficient to act as a 'trigger':

It took years for Lindsey to find her way to a therapist, where she discovered that the occasional flashbacks, phantom sensations of being touched, and breathlessness she experienced in the wake of this violation were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The episodes struck whenever she saw or read words associated with sexual violence: rape, molest, attack, even incest. She’d notice a tingling shock in her chest and “the feeling of fear, maybe a flash of a point of time during my assault, and sometimes it was like he was doing it again,” she says.

Several months ago, a friend of Lindsey’s was regaling her with stories about the movie Room, in which the young female protagonist is imprisoned for years in a shed and repeatedly raped. Lindsey hadn’t seen it, didn’t want to see it; yet when her friend said the word trapped, she detected the unwanted caress of her disorder across her body, felt her pulse begin to race.

... In psychological parlance, a trigger can be any stimulus that transports a PTSD sufferer back to the original scene of her trauma. It might be visual (a red baseball cap like the one an old abuser wore, a gait or facial expression) or aural (a whistle or slamming door). Some people are triggered by the smell of cigarette smoke or traces of a specific perfume. Others react to spoken or written language: words that switch on the brain’s stress circuits, bathing synapses in adrenaline and elevating heart rate and blood pressure.

... When a patient presents with triggers that take the form of words, [professor of clinical psychology] Foa says, she encourages him not to skirt contexts in which those words might materialize.

The Trapdoor of Trigger Words (subtitle: What the science of trauma can tell us about an endless campus debate), Katy Waldman, 5 Sept 2016, Salon.com (emphasis mine)

Within this topic there is some debate over the definitions of terms such as 'trauma', as Professor Foa explains in the same article:

Foa isn’t convinced that those with PTSD would suffer flashbacks “reading accounts of what happened” to fictional characters. A “therapeutic distance” exists, she says, between confronting your past and imagining someone else’s. Even though graphic stories retain the power to disturb, Foa says, “I do not appreciate this idea that people should always decide whether or not they will be made upset. If we act as though they cannot handle distressing ideas, we communicate the unhelpful message that they are not strong.”

Foa’s comment illumines a vast gray area in the trigger warning debate. In the fervor around awareness and empowerment, are university activists using the term trauma too loosely? “I question whether hearing words that have a certain connotation because of our culture or historical context really counts as a trauma,” Kaysen says. “They may be really upsetting, but I don’t know that there’s data to suggest that they would cause PTSD symptoms.”

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    A dictionary defenition is not a credible source to show the existance of a complex human psychological phenomenon.
    – SIMEL
    Jan 14, 2017 at 21:52
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    A dictionary gives the meaning of a word, it means that people use this word to confare that meaning, i.e. there are people who use "triger words" also meaning written word. It doesn't mean that they are right and that there is an actual phenomenomn to correspond to the word.
    – SIMEL
    Jan 14, 2017 at 22:01
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    The dictionary defenition of ghost doesn't mean that ghosts exists, only that people use that word.
    – SIMEL
    Jan 14, 2017 at 22:02
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    This doesn't really answer the question either. The question can a single word trigger a reaction. The dictionary talks about "something read", not what the minimum length of that something is.
    – Peter
    Jan 14, 2017 at 23:51
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    @AE I think that second quote is the answer the OP was looking for. I +1'd but I recommend moving it to the top, and ditching the dictionary definiton.
    – Peter
    Jan 15, 2017 at 23:23

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