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9 confusing mental health terms, explained

What’s the difference between dependence and addiction? And what actually is a trauma? Here we break down some misused mental health terms.

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Nov 8, 2021 UPDATED

With an increase in conversations about mental health comes an increase in lay people using medical jargon and psychology buzzwords. These terms can be misused, especially by the untrained, and it’s hard to discern the difference (if any) in their meanings. But by not being clear about the specifics of terms, we sometimes add to misinformation. Below are definitions of some potentially confusing mental health terms.

1. Trauma

According to the DSM-5, trauma is defined as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” Exposure can be in the form of the trauma actually happening to you, witnessing the trauma, learning that the trauma occurred to someone close to you, or repeatedly being exposed to details of the trauma. 

This definition of trauma is narrower than it had previously been and it requires more than just a stressful event to qualify. Previous versions of the DSM refer to exposure to a traumatic event. It is now necessary that trauma involves an exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.

2. Trigger

Triggers are sensory experiences that evoke memories of a past traumatic event. They can be external or internal, and can cause changes in mood or behavior, or can prompt symptoms related to stress, anxiety, or PTSD

Sometimes, triggers can cause a person to have flashbacks to their trauma that are so intense that they temporarily can’t function in their environment. For example, the smell of a campfire could bring someone back to the night their house burned down, and they could relive the fear they had during that event.

3. Stressor 

Stressors are like triggers, and the words are often used interchangeably, but they’re not exactly the same thing. 

While triggers remind someone directly of a previous trauma, stressors are more general sensory experiences that set off the body’s stress response. Like triggers, stressors can be internal or external. 

For example, for a war veteran, a trigger could be the sound of a gunshot because it causes flashbacks to a specific combat memory, whereas a stressor may be any loud noise that causes internal or external pressure, as it’s reminiscent of a typical war zone, and therefore causes a general feeling of anxiety. 

4. Addiction

Addiction is a term that is commonly used and generally understood. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” 

Individuals suffering from addiction cannot control the compulsion to ingest a specific substance or perform a certain behavior, even if they know the results are harmful. 

Addiction is equal parts biological, psychological, and social, and means that an individual may find it difficult to stop using a drug, even if it is negatively affecting their daily life.

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a Black man in a white t-shirt holding a drink and putting his arm around a Black boy in a green t-shirt, who is leaning on a table with his eyes closed and holding a drink.

5. Dependence 

Dependence and addiction often go hand in hand. Addiction can be both mental and physical, whereas dependence refers to the body requiring a specific amount of a specific substance—even one that’s been prescribed. 

Dependence does not mean that someone is suffering from addiction, but people impacted by addiction are also considered to be impacted by dependence.

Some people who have been addicted to alcohol for a long time will have physical tremors, called DTs, if they don’t have alcohol in their systems. This is because their bodies have developed a dependence. While the strong emotional desire to drink alcohol is a symptom of addiction, physically shaking while in alcohol withdrawal is one symptom of dependence. 

6. Codependence

Codependency refers to a relationship where one person sacrifices their own wants and needs (known as a codependent) in order to fulfil the wants and needs of their partner; and often this partner will become dependent on the codependent. 

Codependency usually stems from individuals with a dysfunctional family, such as one in which a parent suffered from addiction or a chronic illness. These codependent behaviors are learned by having to constantly focus on one family member while growing up. 

Codependent relationships are one-sided, and often the codependent’s partner is suffering from addiction. So, while codependency can be related to addiction, it really refers to the relationship between two people.

two people leaning

7. Stigma

Stigmas surrounding mental health are, sadly, very common. The word stigma is rooted in a physical mark and is now used to describe any characteristic or trait—usually outside of one’s control—that is also perceived as a sign of weakness or inferiority in the bearer. 

For our purposes, stigma in the mental health space refers to the idea that those with mental illnesses are flawed or weak when in actuality no evidence exists to support this belief. Stigmas can lead to negative stereotyping, discrimination, and bullying. 

Stigma doesn’t have to come from others or societal pressure—people can internalize stigmas and have these negative thoughts about themselves too. But mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. Just like there is no shame in having a physical illness, there is no shame in having a mental illness. 

8. Disease

A disease has a known, definite cause and affects a specific function or part of the body with common, specific symptoms. This does not mean all diseases have cures, but their causes are understood and their effects consistent across individuals. 

If a disease has a group of symptoms associated with it, that group of symptoms is often referred to as a syndrome. But a syndrome can also be a group of symptoms that has no known exact cause or disease attached to it. 

That said, using the term “disease” to describe a mental illness is often inaccurate. There are no objective lab tests that can accurately diagnose mental illnesses, so referring to psychiatric ailments as diseases is not widely supported

9. Disorder

Disorder is commonly used as a synonym for disease, but there are a few differences between the two. 

Similar to a disease, a disorder refers to a lack of or disturbance in normal functioning in part of the body. 

What makes a disorder different from a disease is that its biological causes are not completely known, and its symptoms may differ among individuals and often overlap with symptoms of other conditions.

Not that disorders are any less legitimate than diseases. Disorders are just as real, just as damaging, and can be just as treatable as diseases. They are just not as widely understood within the medical community. 

Conversations about mental health are important, and it’s important to make sure you understand the words being used. 

To learn more about confusing mental health terms, or to learn tips for talking about mental health, start with the following sites: 

Article originally published Nov 3, 2021. Updated Nov 8, 2021.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

‌ASAM Definition of Addiction. (2021). Retrieved from Asam.org website: https://www.asam.org/Quality-Science/definition-of-addiction 

Mayo Clinic. (2017). Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477 

Mental Health America. (2021). Codependency. Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency

Nasrallah, H. A. (2018, April 16). Diagnosis 2.0: Are mental illnesses diseases, disorders, or syndromes? Retrieved from https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/65290/diagnosis-20-are-mental-illnesses-diseases-disorders-or-syndromes?sso=true    

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, December 2). Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/frequently-asked-questions/there-difference-between-physical-dependence-addiction

Oken, B. S., Chamine, I., & Wakeland, W. (2015). A systems approach to stress, stressors and resilience in humans. Behavioural Brain Research, 282, 144–154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.12.047

Psychiatry.org. (2017). Taming triggers for better mental health. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-blogs/apa-blog/2017/03/taming-triggers-for-better-mental-health

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