When I first joined TikTok in 2020, I couldn’t go a day without seeing videos about narcissists, “toxic” exes, or emotionally absent parents. While narcissists obviously do exist, the content was so prevalent that you’d be forgiven for thinking narcissists were as common as people named Bob. Narcissism had become the new “OCD” — that is, another clinical term people often misuse to mean “I keep my office organised, and I like to match my paper clips to my push pins.”
Two years later, it’s nearly impossible to go on social media without seeing one of the following: ADHD, gaslight, trauma, anxiety, neuro-divergent, or trigger (a descendant of trigger warning).
Mental health awareness matters, but with more digital creators making therapy-adjacent mental health content, clinical psychological terms are being thrown around so casually as to obfuscate their actual meanings. And while speaking openly about mental health issues can be a clear positive, as Australian publisher Zee Feed writes, “the overuse of clinical terms on social media risks pathologizing behaviour and turning lived experience into content trends.”
On the Sci Show, science communicator Hank Green agreed, “Mental health professionals point out that using diagnostic terms as misplaced metaphors for odd behaviour, personality traits, or even changes in the stock market ultimately minimizes serious conditions and the people who have them.”
Here’s a look at some of the most commonly — and wrongly — used psychological terms, and what they do — and more importantly do not — mean.
ADHD: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ADHD is “an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” It is not simply being absentminded, forgetting to call people back, or having a perpetually messy car.
Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that causes the victim to question their own sanity. In gaslighting, the abuser convinces the victim their version of events never happened, and manipulates them into believing they’re overly sensitive or mentally unstable. Gaslighting is not when someone doesn’t agree with your opinion and tries to convince you of theirs, thinks you’re upset when you’re really not, or a girlboss.
Narcissist: According to Insider, narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosable condition that affects 0.5 to 1% of the population. It’s characterised by controlling, invading privacy, socially isolating, verbally abusing, and instilling fear. A narcissist is not someone who hurt your feelings or ghosted you on Tinder.
OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is “a disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions)…that can significantly interfere with a person’s daily activities.” It is not vacuuming a lot, moving your bedroom furniture around, or re-organising your fridge on a whim because you can’t stand the sight of it.
Trigger: A trigger is something that reminds a person of a traumatic experience, whether it be abuse, an eating disorder, substance use, an accident, or some other form of trauma. Saying “I’m triggered” is often used tongue-in-cheek; as in “this picture of a woman’s perfect boyfriend bringing her breakfast in bed is triggering me.” But triggers are reminders of traumatic experiences, not something that just makes you feel uncomfortable, anxious, angry, or inadequate.
Anxiety: Per the Mayo Clinic, anxiety disorder is characterised by “intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.” Often they involve sudden feeling of fear or terror (panic attacks). Do we all experience anxiety sometimes? Yes. But there’s no need to chalk up how you’re feeling before a presentation, party, or waiting in line to “anxiety.” What you’re experiencing is nerves and impatience.
Trauma: Perhaps there is no word more overused online than “trauma.” As psychology professor Nick Haslam wrote for the Chicago Tribune, people are “traumatized” by high-profile jury verdicts, “Trump 2016 slogans,” even their curly, frizzy hair. (I once posted a TikTok video about pouring water over my child’s head during a bath and received numerous comments from people who were “traumatized” by water on their face as a child.)
Trauma is, according to the American Psychological Association, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster” characterised by shock, denial, “unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” Trauma is not being made to eat vegetables when you were little, or getting water in your eyes while being bathed.