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Decoding Mental Health Buzzwords: Social Use vs Clinical Definitions

In today’s digital age, where information is shared rapidly across social platforms, certain mental health terms have entered our everyday vocabulary. While increased awareness and discussion around mental health is undoubtedly positive, this surge has also led to the widespread use of clinical terms in social contexts, often detached from their original clinical meanings. Understanding the distinction between how these terms are used socially versus their precise definitions in a clinical setting is crucial. This awareness fosters a more informed and empathetic society, where mental health issues are recognized with the seriousness and sensitivity they deserve.

sullen girl with hood on

Anxiety vs. Feeling Anxious

Social Use: It's common to hear individuals say, "I'm feeling so anxious about this exam," using 'anxious' to describe temporary worry or nervousness.

Clinical Definition: Anxiety, in a clinical sense, refers to a pervasive and persistent feeling of worry or fear, affecting daily functions. Disorders under this umbrella can include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, among others. Diagnosis and treatment by a mental health professional are key to managing these conditions.

Depression vs. Feeling Depressed

Social Use: "I'm feeling depressed today" is often used to express sadness or a low mood resulting from specific circumstances.

Clinical Definition: Depression, clinically known as major depressive disorder, encompasses a deeper and more persistent state of low mood or apathy towards life activities. It's not just a fleeting feeling but a complex condition that impacts emotional, physical, and cognitive functions and requires comprehensive treatment.

OCD vs. Being Organized

Social Use: The term OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) is frequently misused in everyday language to describe someone who is extremely neat, organized, or particular about certain routines.

Clinical Definition: OCD is a serious anxiety disorder characterized by unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) performed to alleviate these thoughts. Treatment often involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

ADHD vs. Difficulty Focusing

Social Use: Saying someone has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) has become a casual way of explaining moments of forgetfulness or difficulty in maintaining focus.

Clinical Definition: ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. Diagnosis involves a comprehensive evaluation, and management may include behavioral therapies, medication, and educational support.

PTSD vs. Post-Traumatic Stress

Social Use: The term PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) might be used loosely to describe stress or discomfort experienced after a challenging event.

Clinical Definition: PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Symptoms include flashbacks, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Effective treatments include therapy and, in some cases, medication.

Trauma Dumping

Social Use: The term "trauma dumping" is frequently used to describe instances where someone shares their deeply personal and traumatic experiences unsolicited, often in settings that are not equipped to offer the necessary support or response.

Clinical Definition: From a clinical perspective, sharing traumatic experiences is a crucial step in the healing process. However, professionals emphasize the importance of context and consent, ensuring that both the sharer and the listener are prepared for the emotional weight of the conversation. Trauma dumping, where a person revisits and relives traumatic experiences, runs the risk of retraumatizing the teller. Most trauma-informed clinicians will step in and pause a client if they are trauma dumping to avoid severe dysregulation, dissociation, or distress.

daring quote on boundaries with a wreath around it


Social Use: The word "triggered" is commonly used to describe feeling upset or uncomfortable in response to specific content or situations. It has been widely adopted in social media to flag potentially distressing content or an annoyance.

Clinical Definition: Clinically, being triggered refers to experiencing a strong emotional or physical reaction due to a reminder of past trauma. It's more than discomfort – it's a reactivation of a traumatic memory that can include intense emotional and physical symptoms. Recognizing triggers is a fundamental aspect of trauma-informed care and treatment.


Social Use: "Boundaries" have become a buzzword for defining personal limits and ensuring self-care. In social discourse, it often revolves around saying no to others to protect one's mental health and energy.

Clinical Definition: In mental health practice, boundaries are understood as the clear lines that define the limits and responsibilities in relationships. These are essential not only for personal well-being but also for healthy interpersonal interactions. Setting boundaries is a skill that helps individuals communicate their needs and preferences clearly and respectfully.

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Social Use: "Regulation" is often mentioned in discussions about managing emotions or staying calm in stressful situations.

Clinical Definition: Emotional regulation is a term used in psychology to describe the process of recognizing, understanding, and accepting one's emotions and then responding to them in a healthy way. It's a foundational skill in mental health, crucial for building resilience and coping with life's challenges.


Social Use: The term "self-care" is commonly used in social media and popular culture to refer to taking care of one's physical and mental well-being. It’s often tied to costly activities such as massages, facials, vacations, or purchases.

Clinical Definition: In the clinical setting, self-care refers to intentional activities and practices that an individual engages in to promote their overall health and well-being. This can include actions such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, meeting sensory needs, and engaging in activities that bring joy and relaxation. In mental health treatment, self-care is often emphasized as a crucial aspect of maintaining recovery and managing symptoms.  Self-care can also involve setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, and seeking support when needed.


Social Use: "Mindfulness" has become a buzzword in recent years, often associated with meditation and stress reduction techniques.

Clinical Definition: Mindfulness is a practice that involves intentionally bringing one's attention to the present moment, without judgment. In mental health treatment, mindfulness is used as a tool to help individuals cope with distressing thoughts and emotions. It can also improve overall well-being by promoting self-awareness, reducing rumination and negative thinking patterns, and increasing self-compassion.

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Social Use: In everyday conversation, resilience is often used to describe someone's ability to bounce back from difficult situations or setbacks.

Clinical Definition: Resilience is a complex concept in psychology that refers to the ability to adapt and cope with stress, trauma, and adversity. In mental health treatment, resilience is seen as a protective factor against developing mental health disorders and can be strengthened through various practices such as building social support networks, developing problem-solving skills, and cultivating positive coping strategies.

The Importance of Language

Using mental health terms with precision is more than an exercise in semantics; it's a matter of compassion and understanding. Misusing these terms can minimize the experiences of those who live with mental health disorders and can contribute to stigma, potentially deterring individuals from seeking the help they need. Fostering an environment of accurate understanding and compassionate response starts with how we talk about mental health. By respecting the clinical definitions of these terms, we contribute to a more supportive and informed community, ready to encourage and uphold the mental well-being of its members.

In conclusion, while it’s encouraging to see mental health becoming a part of everyday conversation, it’s important that we strive for understanding in our language. Doing so not only respects those who battle these conditions but also enhances our collective understanding of mental health, paving the way for more effective support, treatment, and, ultimately, a healthier society.

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Written by Amy Pittman LMHCA


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