Because trauma survivors’ memories are so specific, increasingly used “trigger warnings” are largely ineffective.
poiler alert. NSFW. G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.
Fair warning labels at the beginning of movie and book reviews alert the reader that continuing may reveal critical plot points that spoil the story. The acronym NSFW alerts those reading emails or social media posts that the material is not suitable for work. The Motion Picture Association of America provides film ratings to advise about content so that moviegoers can make informed entertainment choices for themselves and their children.
Enter stage right: Trigger warning.
A trigger warning, most often found on social media and internet sites, alerts the reader that potentially upsetting information may follow. The words trigger warning are often followed by a subtitle such as *Trigger warning: This may be triggering to those who have struggled with ___________. Fill in the blank. Domestic abuse. Rape. Body image. Needles. Pregnancy.
Trigger warnings have become prevalent online since about 2012. Victim advocate Gayle Crabtree reports that they were in use as early as 1996 in chat rooms she moderated. “We used the words ‘trigger warning,’ ‘tw,’ ‘TW,’ and ‘trigger’ early on. …This meant the survivor could see the warning and then decide if she or he wanted to scroll down for the message or not.” Eventually, trigger warnings spread to social media sites including Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.
The term seems to have originated from the use of the word “trigger” to indicate something that cues a physiological response, the way pollen may trigger an allergy attack. A trigger in a firearm is a lever that activates the sequence of firing a gun, so it is not surprising that the word was commandeered by those working in the field of psychology to indicate objects and sensations that cause neurological firing in the brain, which in turn cause feelings and thoughts to occur.
Spoiler alerts allow us to enjoy the movie or book as it unfolds without being influenced by knowledge about what comes next. The NSFW label helps employees comply with workplace policies that prohibit viewing sexually explicit or profane material. Motion picture ratings enable viewers to select movies they are most likely to find entertaining. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, are “designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response… to certain subjects from encountering them unaware.”
Discussions about trigger warnings have made headlines in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, and various other online and print publications. Erin Dean writes that a trigger “is not something that offends one, troubles one, or angers one; it is something that causes an extreme involuntary reaction in which the individual re-experiences past trauma.”
For those individuals, it is probably true that coming across material that reminds them of a traumatic event is going to be disturbing. Dean’s definition refers to involuntary fear and stress responses common in individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder characterized by intrusive memories, thoughts, or dreams; intense distress at cues that remind the individual of the event; and reactivity to situations, people, or objects that symbolize the event. PTSD can result from personal victimization, accidents, incarceration, natural disasters, or any unexpected injury or threat of injury or death. Research suggests that it results from a combination of genetic predisposition, fear conditioning, and neural and physiological responses that incorporate the body systems and immunological responses. Current theories suggest that PTSD represents “the failure to recover from the normal effects of trauma.” In other words, anyone would be adversely affected by trauma, but natural mechanisms for healing take place in the majority of individuals. The prevalence of PTSD ranges from 1.9 percent in Europe to 3.5 percent in the United States.
Some discussions have asserted that because between one in four and one in five women have been sexually abused, trigger warnings are necessary to protect vast numbers of victims from being re-traumatized. However, research shows that the majority of trauma-exposed persons do not develop PTSD. This does not mean they aren’t affected by trauma, but that they do not develop clinically significant symptoms, distress, or impairment in daily functioning. The notion that trigger warnings should be generalized to all social media sites, online journals, and discussion boards is erroneous. Now some students are pushing for trigger warnings on college class syllabi and reading lists.
But wait, before people get all riled up, I’d like to say that yes, I have experienced trauma in my life.
I wore a skirt the first time George hit me. I know this because I remember scrunching my skirt around my waist and balancing in heels while I squatted over a hole in the concrete floor to take a piss. We were in Tijuana. The stench of excrement made my stomach queasy with too much tequila. I wanted to retch.
We returned to our hotel room. I slid out of my blouse and skirt. He stripped to nothing and lay on the double bed. He was drinking Rompope from the bottle, a kind of Mexican eggnog: strong, sweet, and marketed for its excellent spunk. It’s a thick yellow rum concoction with eggs, sugar, and almond side notes. George wanted to have sex. We bickered and argued as drunks sometimes do. I said something — I know this because I always said something — and he hit me. He grabbed me by the hair and hit me again. “We’re going dancing,” he said.
“I don’t feel like dancing — “
The world was tilting at an angle I didn’t recognize. The mathematician Matt Tweed writes that atoms are made up of almost completely empty space. To grasp the vast nothingness, he asks the reader to imagine a cat twirling a bumblebee on the end of a half-mile long string. That’s how much emptiness there is between the nucleus and the electron. There was more space than that between George and me. I remember thinking: I am in a foreign country. I don’t speak Spanish. I have no money. We went dancing.
Labeling a topic or theme is useless because of the way our brains work. The labels that we give trauma (assault, sexual abuse, rape) are not the primary source of triggers. Memories are, and not just memories, but very specific, insidious, and personally individualized details lodged in our brain at the time of the trauma encoded as memory. Details can include faces, places, sounds, smells, tastes, voices, body positions, time of day, or any other sensate qualities that were present during a traumatic incident.
If I see a particular shade of yellow or smell a sickly sweet rum drink, I’m reminded of my head being yanked by someone who held a handful of my hair in his fist. A forest green Plymouth Duster (the car we drove) will too. The word assault does not. The words domestic violence don’t either. The specificity of details seared in my mind invokes memory.
Last year a driver slammed into the back of my car on the freeway. The word tailgate is not a trigger. Nor is the word accident. The flash of another car suddenly encroaching in my rearview mirror is. In my mid-20s, I drove my younger sister (sobbing, wrapped in a bed sheet) to the hospital where two male officers explained they were going to pluck her pubic hair for a rape kit. When I see tweezers in a hospital, I flash back to that awful moment. For my sister, other things may be triggers: the moonlight shining on the edge of a knife. The shadow of a person back lit in a doorway. An Hispanic man’s accent. If we were going to insist on trigger warnings that work, they would need to look something like this:
Trigger warning: Rompope.
Trigger warning: a woman wrapped in a bed sheet.
Trigger warning: the blade of a knife.
The variability of human perception and traumatic recall makes it impossible to provide the necessary specificity for trigger warnings to be effective. The nature of specificity is, in part, one reason that treatment for traumatic memories involves safely re-engaging with the images that populate the survivor’s memory of the event. According to Dr. Mark Beuger, an addiction psychiatrist at Deerfield Behavioral Health of Warren (PA), the goal of PTSD treatment is “to allow for processing of the traumatic experience without becoming so emotional that processing is impossible.” By creating a coherent narrative of the past event through telling and retelling the story to a clinician, survivors confront their fears and gain mastery over their thoughts and feelings.
According to the National Center for Health, “Avoidance is a maladaptive control strategy… resulting in maintenance of perceived current threat. In line with this, trauma-focused treatments stress the role of avoidance in the maintenance of PTSD. Prolonged exposure to safe but anxiety-provoking trauma-related stimuli is considered a treatment of choice for PTSD.” Avoidance involves distancing oneself from cues, reminders, or situations that remind one of the event that can result in increased social withdrawal. Trigger warnings increase social withdrawal, which contributes to feelings of isolation. If a survivor who suffers from PTSD has had adequate clinical support, they could engage online with thoughts or ideas that previously had been avoided. The individual is in charge of each word he or she reads. At any time, one may close a book or click a screen shut on the computer. What is safer than that? Conversely, trigger warnings perpetuate avoidance. Because the intrusive memories and thoughts are internal, trigger warnings suggest, “Wait! Don’t go here. I need to protect you from yourself.”
The argument that trigger warnings help to protect those who have suffered trauma is false. Most people who have experienced trauma do not require preemptive protection. Some may argue that it would be kind to avoid causing others distress with upsetting language and images. But is it? Doesn’t it sometimes take facing the horrific images encountered in trauma to effect change in ourselves and in the world?
A few weeks ago, I came across a video about Boko Haram’s treatment of a kidnapped schoolgirl. The girl was blindfolded. A man was digging a hole in dry soil. It quickly became evident, as he ushered the girl into the hole, that this would not end well. I felt anxious as several men began shoveling soil in around her while she spoke to them in a language I could not understand. I considered clicking away as my unease and horror grew. But I also felt compelled to know what happened to this girl. In the 11-minute video, she is buried up to her neck.
All the while, she speaks to her captors, who eventually move out of the frame of the scene. Rocks begin pelting the girl’s head. One after the other strikes her as I stared, horrified, until finally, her head lay motionless at an angle that could only imply death. That video (now confirmed to be a stoning in Somalia rather than by Boko Haram) forever changed my level of concern about young girls kidnapped in other countries.
We are changed by what we witness. Had the video contained a trigger warning about gruesome death, I would not have watched it. Weeks later, I would have been spared the rush of feelings I felt when a friend posted a photo of her daughter playfully buried by her brothers in the sand. I would have been spared knowing such horrors occur. But would the world be a better place for my not knowing? Knowledge helps us prioritize our responsibilities in the world. Don’t we want engaged, knowledgeable citizens striving for a better world?
Recently, the idea of trigger warnings has leapt the gulch between social media and academic settings. Universities are dabbling with policies that encourage professors to provide trigger warnings for their classes because of complaints filed by students. Isn’t the syllabus warning enough? Can’t individual students be responsible for researching the class content and reading materials before they enroll? One of the benefits of broad exposure to literature and art in education is Theory of Mind, the idea that human beings have the capacity to recognize and understand that other people have thoughts and desires that are different from one’s own. Do we want higher education to comprise solely literature and ideas that feel safe to everyone? Could we even agree on what that would be?
Art occurs at the intersection of experience and danger. It can be risky, subversive, and offensive. Literature encompasses ideas both repugnant and redemptive. News about very difficult subjects is worth sharing. As writers, don’t we want our readers to have the space to respond authentically to the story? As human beings, don’t we want others to understand that we can empathize without sharing the same points of view?
Trigger warnings fail to warn us of the very things that might cause us to remember our trauma. They insulate. They cause isolation. A trigger warning says, “Be careful. This might be too much for you.” It says, “I don’t trust you can handle it.” As a reader, that’s not a message I want to encounter. As a writer, that is not the message I want to convey.
I read this last night and again today. I’m having trouble articulating my thoughts about it. I intend to come back and leave a comment after I’ve thought it through further. AGA
I look forward to your comments, Amy.
I still find this piece very troubling, and as a rape and abuse survivor who is an activist..involved in the survivor community..I’m kind of stunned, really. I know so many people who need to control what comes into their world. This doesn’t make them less authentic. It makes them real, and in some cases, more authentic.
This whole piece was a trigger warning, for me and countless others who read it. It was set up that way.
I didn’t choose to watch that video of the girl being stoned. You did. But guess what? Now I get to play that tape over and over, forever. I would have preferred a trigger warning before that, if I’d seen it in social media, for example. I want time to prepare, to gird myself, to say, ok, something is coming and now choose.
For the person who has PTSD (which btw, doesn’t disappear for all of us even with years of therapy, particularly if the events are repeated)..this is our world: we walk around, we watch tv, the news, social media, and we are vigilant, because we know at any moment, we could see something that terrifies us. Now we can’t control when we smell the cologne of our abuser, or when we see a flash of red….but we can take advantage of the gift of belief..that finally society is giving us permission to choose. A trigger warning on a rape scene, on a woman being hit by a man, of child abuse.
Your piece says this choice isn’t needed. Or that we have to sift through, word by word, line by line, image by image..we are already all doing that, all the time. Trigger warnings save us the work.Sometimes.
I see them as a gift. I’m grateful for them.
I write on this comment for many, who are hidden and cannot comment here themselves. We live in a world of shame, where we made responsible for what happened to us. Some people say trigger warnings make us victims. I say they give us power. Power over shame. Power of choice.
I always love your writing, Deb and am a devoted follower of your work. This piece just hit me very hard. AGA
I appreciate your comments here (and the discussion we had privately too) and value the energy you’ve spent processing with me. I don’t believe anyone is living a more or less authentic life, and surely didn’t intend to imply life with or without trigger warnings makes one real. I’ve been sitting with the ideas of this piece since June. I’ve been reading the arguments for and against trigger warnings. I believe I hear what you’re saying. I understand there are topics we want to ready ourselves for, or choose not to participate in, or manage in myriad other ways.
I feel like what I don’t understand is why a person keeps reading if it is not safe for them. Each word leads one further along a story path. Each sentence builds. It’s different than a sudden image that flashes on television for a couple seconds and you could not turn away quickly enough.
I’m confused and fascinated that people think that rather than turn their own eyes away until they choose, people believe the writer should warn the reader. I hear you say it gives the reader a choice. To me, it seems like each word gives you a choice.
I found this interesting: “Trigger warnings save us the work. Sometimes. I see them as a gift. I’m grateful for them.” First, I think they probably are helpful in therapeutic groups where everyone is there for support. That’s an accommodation or intervention in a setting of volatile information that seems mindful. Second, if trigger warnings are a gift, then when why the anger when they aren’t present. That doesn’t feel like a gift, it feels like an expectation.
I know this was a difficult piece of writing. I’m sorry it was so hard.
There are a few things to address in you comment, Deb.
First of all, you know I love you to death and I do appreciate that you spending time thinking about these issues, if only for yourself. I’m more troubled by the fact you have the opinion that what works for you, works for everyone else. As you can see, it doesn’t.
Second, I turn my eyes away constantly! Are you kidding me? My entire life is doing that. All day, every day. I measure everything before I open it. I have to do that, if I don’t can’t function on the level that I need to for my life. That doesn’t mean that I don’t look or that I don’t read. I don’t “need” a trigger warning for all things, but for some things, like violence, rape, abuse, yeah I’m grateful when it’s there. For example, there’s a website that rates films. Before I see any film I go on there. It will tell me if there is a rape scene. I like having that information. It’s not always obvious. And then I have the choice of watching it or not.
Of course, words give you a choice. Your title to this piece gave me a choice. But your title didn’t say, there’s violence in this piece. I guessed that there would be, and word by word, I decided to keep reading. That’s my choice, as the reader. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t VALUE it when the writer VALUES that I–and countless others–are dealing with horrifying experiences. I’m actually more likely to devote time to a writer who writes about topics that are difficult for me if they use a TW sometimes, because they are using the TW.
Third, this idea of therapy and group structure: well, yes, of course in a group one has these allowances and it’s all very generalist. But … Why is mindfulness (your word) only something that takes place in secret group? Can’t mindfulness take place out in the world?
Fourth, no one is angry as you state above. We are leveled. All of us are struggling everyday, and here comes someone saying, hey this thing that helps you even be able look at media? Guess what? It’s “balderdash”..your feelings..”poppycock” You are going to get a huge response to that, because you’ve just discounted all of us, swiftly. And also, It’s not a question of expectation, it’s a question of kindness. A TW is a nod, a simple nod, nothing more. It says, I offer this and by the way, there might be something here that is hard for you. It’s an act of kindness. I’m pro-kindness. Not to say you aren’t as well, but your statements and conclusion leave a big missing for me in a world that already has enough darkness.
Lastly, there is a huge difference between using TWs in literature and academia and using them in common media outlets. If I read Shakespeare, do I need a trigger warning? I don’t think so. But if I turn on the news, and it’s the Ray guy hitting his wife in face over and over, do I want a TW before it’s aired? Yes. Yes I do. You say above that TW says “I don’t think you can handle it.” Hmmm. Maybe we can’t. Is that bad? Does that make us less than? Does it make us less powerful, less good, less women, less survivors? Maybe you are right: we should decide these things for ourselves when we can. But I, for one, am glad for the help when it shows up. It doesn’t make me a victim, it helps me orchestrate my life. It is a tool.
A tool that helps many of us navigate through the dark.
You know trigger warnings aren’t just used in articles and print right?
I use them in conversation. I don’t call it trigger warnings through… I call it asking for consent to discuss a topic, or showing common courtesy. As someone who thinks outside the box, talks about non-conventional topics, and makes HORRID jokes…. it’s only common courtesy to ensure someone is comfortable with the topic before talking about it. I don’t get this anti-trigger warning push back since I see it as basic manners to make sure people are comfortable with what you do to them.
and that’s NOT in any way saying I think or judge that they can’t… it’s giving them the decision.
THAT said, I also wanted you to know that this article is being shared around social media to shame people who benefit from trigger warnings and say they are weak as people and avoiding their issues. So, while not helping people with past trauma, you have officially added to the struggles and stigma they face by leaving this article up. **starts slow clapping*
Thank you for putting it into words, it means more to a stranger than you can ever know.
As a survivor of multiple sexual molestations and assaults, I am NOT a victim. Trigger warnings are an insult to me. A perpetuation of the victim mentality.
As a writer, and as a cutter, I give out trigger warnings, because I know that when I write, I’m writing things from the mindsets of my characters. Every dark, horrible thing that happens to them, that they think and feel, is put on the page.
And I know –Oh, how I know– exactly how persuasive those arguments can be when you’re staring at that blade, when you feel like you’re worthless and there’s no point in screaming because there’s no one to hear you anyway. And I know that some can handle it better than others, but there should be INFORMED consent about the matter.
It’s one thing if someone thinks they can handle it and they’re wrong. We both tried, we both failed. But it’s another to not even give someone a chance.
Whew. I agree with a lot of what you’ve written, but to call others’ needs for trigger warnings “balderdash,” “hogwash” and “poppycock” seems irresponsible and trite. As an abuser of repeated gang rape and child molestation, I find trigger warnings helpful. And I find your dismissal of such as downright hurtful. Yes, the stench of old urine in a public bathroom takes me right back to when a man shoved my head into his Brillo-pad pee-soaked crotch. That’s a trigger. But so are articles detailing the Steubenville gang rape and the way Jerry Sandusky fondled young children. If people want to take the time to write trigger warning at the top of a post or article, it means something to me, a woman diagnosed with PTSD. Even if it doesn’t mean something to you, I hope sincerely that other readers of this piece will continue to do so and look upon your opinion as just that.
I meant “as a survivor of repeated gang rape and child molestation” …
Hi Kirsten, Thanks for your response. I don’t intend to dismiss or hurt anyone who has survived terrible events and yet there is inherent sensitivity there so I can see why it might be perceived. I can see why you might feel the words balderdash or hogwash feel trite. They are directed at the trigger warnings themselves, and not people. Both those words are old-fashioned words to call malarky on something–and that’s what I was doing. I respect the agency of each person to choose whether to engage with a topic, conversation, media. Once they begin, they can see where the piece is going and decide they don’t want to proceed. Word by word, second by second, each person has agency to proceed or not proceed. To me, that is the biggest safety net for media of all.
Hmm, this essay is puzzling to me. If you don’t feel like trigger warnings are personally helpful to you, that’s fine. But many survivors feel that they are–why would you want to take that from them? You are free to ignore trigger warnings if they don’t apply to you, and let them be useful to those they are useful to.
I am a survivor of abuse, and I personally don’t really benefit from trigger warnings, but it would never occur to me to disbelieve the people who say they *do* benefit from them.
I understand that one of the things you are doing is sharing your *own* experiences with trauma and representations of trauma–I respect that aspect of your essay. But using words like “hogwash” and “poppycock” demeans and trivializes the experiences of others who feel differently from yourself. I think it’s possible to have a thoughtful conversation about trigger warnings without being insulting to those who genuinely see a benefit in having them–I’m disappointed that polemic trumps thoughtfulness and respect in this essay.
Hi Laurence, I do ignore them. I find it more difficult to ignore the increasing expectations by some that they be present. I am not trivializing the experience nor the individual, I am naming the intervention of trigger warnings as ineffective and unnecessary except in isolated (therapeutic) settings such as online support groups for those with PTSD.
Because doing so essentially supports ignoring and allowing their trauma to fester rather than facing and eliminating it.
You don’t force psychothetapy on people even if you are a psychotherapist. So why so you think it’s okay to force this on someone without their consent?
I find the language of this piece trivializing to the agency of those who suffer trauma relapse due to triggers. The suggestion here to do away with trigger warnings sounds as a call for people to “get over it” and denies them the ability to make their own informed choice about when and how to engage their triggers.
Self-care is critical for trauma recovery. In my experience, self-care includes identifying and avoiding triggers until one is in a safe space to deal with them. PTSD does not manifest predicably as irritability or depression or anxiety. It may be a combination. Flashbacks may cause physical response due to the reversion to subconscious, placing both victim and those surrounding them in danger. It is important to control for triggers because, for some, the only safe way to engage them during the healing process is under professional supervision and support.
I applaud those who offer trigger warnings as the move is one of empathy. Because of the language employed in this piece, it feels like an argument against compassion via the narrow view of what constitutes healing for victims of trauma and a judgment of the mental-emotional capacity of the PTSD population.
While I’m happy the writer is able to move forward in her own trauma, purposeful exposure is not the same thing as healing, rather it is desensitization. There is a grand difference.
Hi Shawna, The agency of individuals is the point of this piece. That we each have the ability to determine what is and isn’t appropriate for our safety and our sensibilities. That we can, at any given moment, stop ourselves from reading another word, or click a screen or television off, and disengage from the media. I absolutely support therapeutic support, and in that context (such as a website for survivors only) TW may be one of the therapeutic interventions. My argument is with that protection being extended into all online and virtual and real-time information. I do not and would not trivialize the person but I do disagree with the mode some survivors expect from the rest of the world when we communicate about difficult subjects. I do think the conversation is important, so thanks for responding. Best regards, Deb
Agency is an important word. Having the knowledge and ability to choose which media you will or will not consume–being able to exercise your right to say “NO!” to a particular TV show, movie, or Web article–is quite empowering. So I don’t think trigger warnings are a bad idea.
And you’re free to do that when you come across the content. But the bubble you create for yourself by avoiding concepts that cause you pain is not healthy or conducive to recovery–it’s anathema to lasting healing.
The question is, though, what are you really missing? Would trigger warnings even be necessary if we didn’t live in such a sex-and-violence obsessed culture? Is your life going to be any poorer because you chose to read Jane Austen or watch Turner Classic Movies instead of watching reality TV or “Game of Thrones”? Some of the most triggering media people encounter doesn’t really contribute anything to our lives anyway. What would a rape survivor gain from watching hardcore pornography? Why should a veteran force himself to watch “Saving Private Ryan”? Is it really worth it? I don’t think so. Maybe for you, but not for everyone.
Also, just because it’s not conducive to lasting healing for you doesn’t mean you have the right to tell others what their method of healing should be or what outcomes they should strive for. It comes across as a bit demeaning to insist that saying “no” is a form of living in a bubble. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it. But don’t tell others not to.
One more thing: what you call a “bubble”, others may call “boundaries.” Everyone has the right to them.
Hey, Deb – I’m enormously fond of you, but I didn’t agree with the article, and I got triggered by all three of your examples (which was maybe part of what the structure of the piece was aiming to do?), despite the fact that none of them is specific to my experience.
I feel as though I have a very full, unisolated life, did decades of healing work around my childhood abuse, probably do still have some traces of clinically definable PTSD, and protect myself fiercely from violence of all kinds, visual, written, auditory, etc.
It’s my strategy for staying calm enough to live a functional and happy life. I don’t think being faced with scenes of violence that I’m not expecting does anything to improve my lot. I know plenty about stonings, rape at knife-point, and men beating up women without needing one single new instance to make those things more real to me or make me care about them more. My political activism and my personal life are both going strong without vivid images of damage, and I really don’t think that’s “avoidance,” which you cite as such an undesirable element.
Not sure how long it will take me to “unsee” your examples, but at the moment I’m getting off line in order to recover. That’s *not* what I hope for from an article in STIR.
There also seemed to be an odd dissonance between most of your article’s tone and the British-isms thrown in — maybe for comic relief? Balderdash, Poppycock, Hogwash. They seem like such dismissive words, compared to the general seriousness of your subject.
I mean, really: “Fiddlesticks! One more eleven-year-old killed before our very eyes.” What are you trying to tell us?
Molly, I agree with everything you just said. Every word. I’ve been triggered all day single I read this.
I’m also a huge fan of Deb’s. But not a huge fan of dismissive words.
Hi Molly, I am fond of you too. We can disagree and still care about and for one another. I hear what you saying that these three things were terribly difficult to read. I expect those scenarios would be difficult for anyone who has empathy about the wrongs done to others.
The point I don’t understand is why someone continues to read past the point of their own personal safety. At any point one can stop reading. At the point it says “the first time George hit me” one could say, this isn’t for me. I feel like there is a disconnect about each person’s ability to caretake and protect the self as they read.
I read past my own discomfort. I write past my own discomfort. I struggle to make sense (or not) of those things and live with the complex personal discord this sometimes causes. I don’t read past my own safety. I stop, or change the channel, or turn off the television. I see those things as my own internal line and responsibility.
As for balderdash, poppycock, and hogwash: I struggled with what to use for some time. I didn’t feel BS was right, nor stupid, nor silly. Those didn’t express my point of view about TW. The words I chose did because they represented (to me) a false sense of protection that TW offer.
I’m sorry this piece caused distress. I trust you know enough about the way I’ve spent my life to know that it was not my intent.
You advise someone who is being triggered to stop reading but yet include in your article how avoidance of triggers makes PTSD even worse?
If you are sorry about the distress you caused, then why are you advocating for the end of trigger warnings? The point of trigger warnings is to prevent people from being distressed. By the time somebody reads “the first time George hit me” it is possible they’re already triggered and their safety is gone. I get that the point you’re trying to make is that trigger warnings do not work because other things that wouldn’t be considered “triggers” could be triggers. But your really graphic examples can also be triggers. And nobody was warned.
Although I was open to listening to your side why trigger warnings don’t work, I personally found your article in really, really poor taste. And after reading this comment, I’ve gone from irritated to your article to completely confused at even what you’re article meant to say.
Thanks Sarah, I had similar thoughts.
“I don’t think that being faced with scenes of violence that I’m not expecting does anything to improve my lot.” This is an interesting point. Some people need to be awakened to injustice and cruelty in the world via graphic imagery. But what about the scenes of violence that are shoved in our faces in the name of “entertainment”? Think about it–does that improve *anyone’s* lot, PTSD or no? Trigger warnings for TV shows wouldn’t have been necessary sixty years ago, when you think about it, because instead of “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” and other explicitly violent programs, people got their entertainment from “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners”. Our society is just too obsessed with gore and violence, and people are either worn out by it or completely desensitized to it. Being exposed to this much bloodshed on a regular basis is not healthy for anyone, IMO.
And if I see one more bus with an ad for “American Horror Story” plastered across it, I will scream.
Dear Deb, I suffer from P.T.S.D and depression. It’s a battle I suffer with every day.With therapy and great medication I know my own personal triggers. I REALLY Can’t understand how and the why you would write this.Are you a mental health professional? Jo Woerner
Hi Jo, I am not a mental health professional. I am a writer who wrestles questions (to myself and others) about social issues and social justice. I have observed increasing expectations (and sometimes demands) that trigger warnings be on everything from social media to syllabi. This was my response to that escalation.
I have mixed feelings. There are many kinds of trauma, each triggered in various ways. I tend to shy away from generic “one solution for all” philosophies. In this, I would respect each person’s right to find their own best way. The didactic dismissive quality of the article only piqued my feelings of caution, as I have been a survivor of psychological and verbal abuse, and so any such punishing language as belittles another’s ideas of how to deal, is met with a physical reticence and doubtful perspective, of its efficacy as truth for all.
Hi Anna, I’m glad you joined the discussion.
I believe we’re in agreement that there are no one-solution-for-all remedies for healing and trauma. Nor should there (from my point of view) be one-solution-for-all expectations that trigger warnings be placed on difficult subjects.
Dear Deb, Thank you for your reply. Your bio and your response has helped me to process the story with better understanding you’ve done such great work.Love Oregonians. Cheers, Jo
Thank you, Jo. I’ve spent a lot of time with the effects of trauma in various ways. It doesn’t make me an expert. It does mean I think about it a lot. Good wishes to you.
This popped across my newsfeed a couple of times today. I was prepping all day to teach a class tonight, was exhausted and had decided to dig in tomorrow. I had decided, but I didn’t do that. I read it. And it feels like a big, “Get over it!” It’s flippant, and it feels like you’re over victims all together. I think the hinging words here are, something like, people “who have had adequate clinical support….” Yet we know that many people do not receive adequate clinical support, ever. We know that mental health care is horrifically lacking and shame is prevalent. If one seeks assistance first from a gynecologist or GP, for instance, they might be patted on the knee, handed a prescription, and sent on their merry way. This is well written, but it feels flippant and dismissive. Everyone has a first trigger. I was a well-seasoned adult, with daughters much older than I was, when I flashed for the first time on a memory of being five-years-old, crouched naked in a dark closet. That memory developed and bloomed over time. I’ve processed and found meaning through writing about it. Through supporting others. But I have never received what you might consider “adequate clinical support.” I agree that trigger warnings lose effectiveness when they’re tossed about carelessly. But there are many who rely on them whether they yet know it or not. Shaming those who can’t function without them is the farthest thing from empathy.
Oh my yes. Kindness. Is it so out of style? Are we so over being kind to others that we can’t be bothered to type a few letters? I understand that controversy is King. It breeds clicks and the more comments, the better, reasonable or not. When there are so many people that seem to be in a snark competition, is it really too much trouble to extend a kindness to a fellow human being whose experienced enough unkindness for ten lifetimes. If we extend more love, I have to believe we’ll get more love back. In my view, that’s worth any modicum of effort on my part.
Good on you for this article. Life itself seems to come without a trigger warning, and I’ve no problem with articles I purposefully seek out as an adult to be without them either.
Hi everyone, I unfortunately lack the time to read everyone’s comments but did have a quick skim-through.
I personally loved the article. It is one of only a handful that I’ve come across that has not made me feel subhuman for having PTSD. In the UK, one of the national newspapers which is well-read amongst teaching and social work professions constantly goes on about how if someone has experienced some trama in their life they will never be able to live a normal and fulfilling life and cannot function in society. It is depressing. I’ve had a horrible life and all I want to do is pick up the pieces and move on yet too many people believe I can’t because of articles with “trigger warnings” so I have to battle even harder to prove I can do it which isn’t exactly normal. It makes the PTSD worse because I’m always on edge and I never know when someone with “good intentions” is going to come along and instead of listening to me state I just want to get on with it and rebuild decide I’m too fucked up to do so because someone who hasn’t experienced any trama other than reading 50 Shades decided that I need “protecting”. All this “protecting” and people who don’t know me deciding I’m incapable has made the problems I face a lot worse. The fact that trigger warnings are becoming more predominate online and in society means that people who were my friends now self censor around me. I had a bad start to life, it does not mean I want a bad future. The amount of times I’ve had to start over because people with good intentions decided to interfer is getting ridicoulous now and I can’t keep doing it. But I don’t have a voice because I’ve lived through some really bad times and probably shouldn’t be alive right now. The people with good intentions, the ones who imply I’m subhuman, don’t see how I’ve built up my present to hopefully have a semi decent future all they see is my past and how I apparently need protecting. If I didn’t have to constantly prove myself I wonder where my life would be right now.
Everyone has personal triggers, regardless of what they may or may not have gone through. Yet people who have had a normal, only mildly traumatic life, deciding what those triggers are for everyone get it wrong. I don’t need someone to tell me I shouldn’t read/watch something, I can decide for myself.
I’m afraid I’ve probably repeated myself a few times and probably didn’t say everything I meant to but it seems I’m in a phase where I’m being allowed to rebuild and I would like to continue doing so until I reach a point where I’ve proved to everyone that I can do it so no one comes along and takes it away because I can’t do it again so I’m rather pressed for time.
Great article. Thanks for not patronising me or implying I’m subhuman.
We don’t have to prove anything to anyone but ourselves. I still decide I’m strong enough. I still decide I’m moving forward rather than living in the past. I decide I can have empathy for others and appreciate their stories and their struggles while I’m owning my present. I decide not to forget but to forgive–for me so that I can move forward with love and peace. Sometimes I decide every day. Sometimes every hour. But I decide, nevertheless.
@Kim, I hope I recieved all of your reply as I’m unable to get on the computer today. I wish it was as simple as that for me. A lot of the stuff happened when I was legally an adult and I rather stupidly went to social services, the police and college for help so this stuff is tied to me for life. So I rebuild and just hope I’m rebuilt enough so that next time I come to their attention (ie baby-daddy decides to end up in hospital and be uber-manipulative will result in me having to speak to social services) they’ll leave me alone. It is always being on edge because I feel like I can’t show any weakness because I can’t control external forces that will bring the eyes of the authority in my direction is stress enough without having to deal with people who in all honesty haven’t experienced anything outside of normal trauma screaming “trigger warning” because they don’t want to cause damage (or whatever their good intentions are) – I know people who seriously do that. To them, I’m subhuman and not entitled to an opinion – but they haven’t lived through this stuff, I have and should have a louder voice than them. It is these people who shape government policy when the policy makers should be asking those of us that have lived through the trauma what would have helped is come out the other side and what warning signs police, etc should look for.
Oh, how I hear you. I was a single mom for the first six years of my daughter’s life. No child support, ever. Our system is so, so very broken. “I have and should have a louder voice than [the authorities].” “It is these people who shape government policy when the policy makers should be asking those of us that have lived through the trauma what would have helped us come out the other side….” That is the bottom line, and it has been for years. I had a good job when my daughter was young. I went to SS asking for $100/mo, just to help us get by. The guy told me he never gets to talk to people like me. Then proceeded to tell me he could help me if I didn’t have a job. I liked my job. I had a good job. I wanted to keep my job. But it wasn’t enough, and our system is FUBAR’d when it penalizes someone for working. They’d rather have paid me, what? $500 a month? $600 a month? More? When $100 a month would have helped me keep food on the table and my dignity? I was in the cast of Listen to Your Mother this year. My story was about recovery and victory after being suicidal as a young single mother. My daughter is 27 years old. Married. A college graduate. I can only tell you there is hope. And I hear you. I believe we are the authors of our own lives. I hope you find a way to get in the driver’s seat. At least that’s what helps me.
@Kim. Thanks 🙂 I’m glad there’s hope. I’m hoping to get this phase of rebuilding done without getting noticed. Then I can have a louder voice than anyone and say, “guess what, I’ve been through it and things need to change”.
I really like reading the articles Jennifer Pastiloff posts on her facebook page, I love hearing real stories from real people. I also really appreciate when she gives a trigger warning because then I know I can skip it altogether or proceed with caution and stop reading if it contains triggers for me. I have done extensive therapy and still have to live a quite sheltered life, no news whether in a newspaper or on tv, very few movies and books…healing is a process that can take lots of years and the steps can be incremental. If I get highly triggered I am non-functinal for about 4 days. I am a single mom who is self-employed and that is just not an option for me. We give handicapped people preferred parking because we as a society have agreed it is a way we can make their difficult lives a little easier. How is a trigger warning different? I could argue that there are too many handicapped parking spaces and shouldn’t they just stop going to places where access to them is difficult? I think that’s a ridulous notion. In these types of situations we need to err on the side of caution. I read your entire article because I was hoping to learn something new that might be helpful to me, instead it left a really bad taste in my mouth and seems to perpetuate what people with PTSD already deal with on a regular basis. I don’t see the author as an ally, that’s the way it made me feel. I appreciate the perspective but am really surprised to see this post on Jennifer Pastiloff’s page becasue she is in my “safe” category of what I personally can handle, becaue of the trigger warnings she provides. This article did not come with a trigger warning. I didn’t think an article discussing the validity of trigger warnings would also contain triggers. I am very brave about reading info that I feel can be helpful even if it borders on “unsafe” becasue I can stop at any time and I do have tools to cope with small triggers, and I kept reading to find out what point was trying to be made that could help me in my process. Now I just feel misunderstood…sigh.
I think the article was mistitled, I took it as being something based on research, not on one peron’s opinion that implies some authority on the matter.
I do appreciate the dialogue in the comments section…and the author’s willingness to engage in the dialogue. I just wish I hadn’t read the article.
I appreciate you commenting Starlight. I am sorry that you feel you hadn’t read. I do my best to create a forum for all writers that I believe in. Thanks for hanging out on my page.
Thanks for the reply Jen, to clarify, it was not the content of the article on your page, I really appreciate the variety of writing you post. I love that you give people a voice and they have so many varied perspectives.
It was that you didn’t give a trigger warning for this article that definitley had triggers, as you usually do. It surprised me. Does this article mean you are going to stop giving trigger warnings on posts?
No, I will give trigger warnings. I try and do my best with that. Thank you, again. Appreciate your feedback.
It is a breath of fresh air to read something so sensible in a world that seems to be veering toward nonsense. The idea of putting Trigger Warnings on everything to keep people from feeling negative emotions or remembering things that need to be remembered in order for healing to take place is misguided. It’s like the current American epidemic of using prescription drugs for nothing more than coddling and numbing millions of us into not feeling. We need to feel more, not flatten out. Ironically one type of post-war damage vets may experience is “flat affect.” No highs, no lows. I have lived with a Vietnam vet who suffered from this. Not to be wished on anyone. Secondarily, this type of censoring has no place in art or literature. Sorry. It makes for flat, mindless “entertainment.”
A trigger warning in not censoring, just like an R rating on a movie is not censoring. The content of the movie doesn’t change, it just gives people a heads up so they can decide if it’s something they would like to see or not.
Trigger warnings don’t keep people from feeling negative emotions, it gives people a heads up to proceed with caution or skip that particlular thing. Negative emotions and triggers are not the same thing.
As far as remembering things that need to be remembered for healing, that happens in a safe place with someone there to give support and guidance, not by surprise when it could be very dangerous to be triggered in a situation.
But some people find that they “flatten out” or dissociate when exposed to violent media involuntarily. When you are faced with extreme violence in the media, you may have no other mechanism for dealing with it, and may feel that you are “required” by other people around you to flatten out in order to “prove” that you are “strong” and can “take it.” This is not healthy, and some people may find that avoiding triggering material helps them avoid this kind of dissociation.
This reminds me of parents who were fearful of their children being exposed to dirt & germs, only to discover that the answer was to let them play in the mud, and build up their immunities. Perhaps the way to strength after trauma includes a gradual re-entry into a world where terrible things are told that need to be told. I do know that not everyone gets the luxury of a gradual return, but I also know that living in a bubble of kindness and sensitivity would have limited me. I needed to scrape up against reality and test my healing scars, in order to become free someday. I also know that a thoughtful article has never been a trigger in the same way that careless comments and jokes have been. They will never have trigger warnings, and we must — hopefully — be able to withstand them, for our own sakes. I really applaud the author of this article.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I appreciate artcles/blog posts that contain trigger warnings, but I don’t get particularly upset when they are missing. The majority of the time, I continue to read past a TW. I even watch Law & Order & SVU. But I choose the time and place to do so. To me, a trigger warning doesn’t say “Avoid this like the plague.” It just helps me to prepare and plan. If I’m reading on my phone in a public place or the lunch room at work, or if I’m stressed or tired or feeling particularly vulnerable for whatever reason, I might bookmark a piece to get back to it when I’m in the right time and place and frame of mind to process it.
i found this piece after a google search to understand why triggers make so many people so upset. i feel like i’m constantly seeing “trigger warning” at the top of articles, or on social media, and ultimately i don’t get it. why would survivors (itself a word that is now coming under debate) choose to position themselves in an increasingly-sensitive or victimized position? this constant need for censorship, to accommodate the emotional sensibilities of fragile folks has roots in the work of Charles and Mary Lamb, and Thomas Bowdler, who neutered Shakespeare.
people in the first world have increasingly (decreasingly?) thin skins. while we coddle each other over using words that might trigger a memory or negative association, the rest of the world deals with active trauma and suffering… mostly so that we can eat our cake atop our miserable pyramid of disproportionate wealth. will the pendulum swing the other way at some point, encouraging past victims to not allow themselves to toughen up, confront their triggers, and not be wounded by casual words? the alternative has all the variety and delight of living in a bubble.
btw, Mary Lamb, the same lady who removed the sexy and violent dialogue from the greatest works of the english language, stabbed her own mother to death.
I wish people would understand that triggers dont work the same way for everyone. The way people’s brains process traumatic memories isnt always the same. Some people are less triggered by specific details and more triggered by talk of forms of violence. Some people are more triggered by specific details, which are unfortunately harder to warn for. Plus that article ignores that there are other sorts of triggers than trauma triggers. For example, phobia triggers.
Trigger warnings arent perfect. They certainly dont work for everyone and for some people even the feeling of having to trigger warn can make it feel like they cant express stuff about their trauma and well I do not think they should be shamed for being unable to trigger warn. But this idea that trigger warnings help no one is not good either and it makes me feel like my trauma’s fake because detailed things peripheral to my abuse don’t really trigger me like reading about similar forms of abuse do. One of the most triggering things to me is reading victim-blaming stuff that sounds like things my parents said.
Sometimes I do read triggering things and expose myself to triggers. It’s a thing a lot of survivors do. It’s also different than exposure therapy. It’s something I HAVE to do, but it’s not something that really helps me. It might help other survivors. But exposure therapy is something usually done with consent around a therapist. Being triggered in class or by a friend or online potentially without necessary support to cope with the triggers and without consent to being exposed to triggering material isn’t exposure therapy. Also exposure therapy isn’t for everyone.
Also its not that easy to stop reading or listening when triggered. Especially if I go into a passive sort of dissociative state. Autopilot kicks in. Or if I’m in class listening I often can’t move or do anything.
My reaction to triggers is to flop (http://www.pods-online.org.uk/responsestotrauma.html) which means that I am often unable to stop reading or listening, or do anything once triggered. The mind goes into a state of passive acceptance & submission when all the muscles go floppy and both the body and mind become malleable. Much of the ‘higher thinking’ processes in the brain are shut off at this point, and so this is the zombie-like submission where people do what they are told and do not protest at all about what is happening to them.
This is one of the five common responses (fight, flight, freeze, fawn/friend, flop), and as such, is something that people do not have control over. Yes, ideally I would be able to simply ‘stop reading’, but because of the nature of PTSD and trauma, this is often not possible.
Of course we are all fully aware that life does not come with trigger warnings – we’re already living in it, trying to survive and trying to heal. And your refusal to include content warnings takes already difficult circumstances and makes them even harder. Scenes and explicit descriptions of rape, suicide, depression and child abuse have a potential to trigger symptoms including panic attacks, dissociation, flashbacks, hyperarousal, and difficulty sleeping. When survivors are already spending so much time and energy trying to overcome these things, people specifically deciding not to help them can really set them back a great deal in their recovery. Not always. But if the author has been kind, then they have a choice. The decision of whether to engage with the media in question can be an informed choice. They can avoid it. They can skip a particular section to read when they are in a better place.
I don’t understand what you have against being kind. About showing mercy to those who have suffered. About the fact that gratuitous violence is par for the course in the media today and maybe that is not such a great thing for everybody. Not everybody processes things in the same way, and while trigger warnings may not work for you, they do work for others. Opposing trigger warnings implies that that PTSD isn’t a legitimate enough condition to warrant a slight adjustment in how you present your material so that folks dealing with this disorder can actually participate when they’re ready and able. It’s says ‘your trauma doesn’t matter to me’
So how about we all stop trivializing the pain of those most in need of support among us. How about we remember that everyone among us is fighting a battle we know nothing about, and some of us are on the verge of losing?
How about we act with kindness.
I wish I had written this. 🙂
You’re a gifted writer and are obviously very smart. But this was otherwise a horribly written essay and offensive, dismissive and triggering for all of the reasons named above by other readers. Content warnings are particularly important for people who are early in trauma therapy regardless of PTSD diagnosis, that is when things are most raw and they’re most vulnerable to trauma responses. Plus due to stigma and stereotypes we completely underestimate as a society how many people at any given time are in the early stages of trying to survive trauma. I assume you live in Oregon? This state is full of people living with PTSD including me, mine is so severe I’m trying to get an experimental neurological treatment for it. Have you considered the fact that not being a trauma survivor is a privilege? And when I read these kinds of articles all I read is a privileged person flaunting their normative experience and trouncing on the underprivileged, asserting your power as the privileged over those affected by unfortunate and unavoidable adversity, a sort of bullying among other things. Go ahead and be viewed as an unkind and cruel writer, you’ll lose readers and certainly won’t gain any meaningful ones. Please read this community and humanity driven take on content warnings which is how I stumbled across you: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/opposing-trigger-warnings/
As someone who suffers from PTSD I just want to say I agree with you.
I do not believe the world should try to accommodate my irrational fear responses to make me more comfortable when it is not intentionally trying to hurt me.
It’s my job to learn and confront my PTSD. I look forward to a day where triggers and bad memories no longer control me – I refuse to let them.
I believe that strangers do not owe it to me to know what will set me or anyone else off. I do not want to be babied in that way.
And while it is kind to consider others feelings I think it’s out of the way for someone to try and guess what might upset me and out of the way for me to ask a stranger to respect that. I noticed someone else using the word “mindfulness” to mean “thoughtful” or caring”? In therapy, mindfulness just means being present in a current situation without judgement. So, yes, we all should practice mindfulness – but mindfulness is not “mind reading what might upset others”. I think forgiveness and understanding are important when dealing with difficult issues in that the intent of the person talking is more important than how I may react to it. My reactions, thoughts, feelings and behavior are still mine alone at the end of the day.
Just some thoughts.
You know, it’s interesting how you talked about when you watched the young lady that was kidnapped, despite it being unpleasant, you kept watching. This is sort of reminded me of another reason I think trigger warnings are useless, because I think it makes some people MORE likely to read/look at it, even though you said maybe you’d have avoided it had there been one. I know for myself anyway, for certain horrible things I’ve gone through, if someone else has gone through them, or there’s a movie, video, story, etc., about it, despite it perhaps bringing back memories that aren’t pleasant, I would watch them anyway-maybe I wanted to know someone else went through the same thing, I don’t know. But either way, I just think that in some cases at least, they’d likely make people more likely to read\look at something. As far as the complaints people were filing against college professors, here’s the thing-they probably were the social justice warrior slacktivist types, & those types have HUGE egos. I mean gargantuan. Their greatest joy in life is lecturing others, they just get off on it-just look at many of the ‘debates’ (pissing contests) on social media. They’re not there to change anyone’s mind or actually help anyone, they’re there because they get off on lecturing people & acting holier than thou. I guarantee you that many of those people filing complaints probably weren’t even actually offended, or ‘triggered’ if you will-they will nitpick & overreach, & if they can find anything at all to lecture or complain about, oh believe me, they will. Of course then afterwards they’ll go to their social media, post about how they had ‘educated’ their professor over their ‘problematic’ behavior, then bask in all the attention from other overly idealistic slacktivists.
I feel the need to talk about triggers, the different things people mean when they say they are triggered, the effects overuse has on discourse and the paradoxical utility that running face first into an unexpected issue has.
I’m a survivor. And I have been triggered. Not in the “oh, you evil person, you have offended my sensibilities way,” or even in the “goddamnit, I can’t unsee that now and it’s going to ruin my day” sense. I’ve been triggered in the sense of having a complete, unexpected lapse of sanity. Gibbering and twitching, without words, unable to form a coherent thought. I’m told it’s called a “pseudoseizure.” It was entirely in my head and it came as a complete surprise.
It’s very difficult to predict what specific words or topics might set someone off or hurt feelings. And, frankly, as a compassionate human being, I don’t wish to offend anyone’s sensibilities, if for no better reason than to avoid derailing the topic.
But due to the nature of traumatic memory (beautifully described above), it’s practically impossible to know what might provoke an uncomfortable memory.
Please notice I’m not speaking about people choosing to take offense at something. That’s simply controlling behavior, an attempt to shut down a conversation. We need to learn how to tell the difference in order to respond to each thing appropriately.
The event that triggered me could have been predicted to provoke an angry or hurt response, but it’s the sort of thing that happens between people every single day, and falls into most people’s lives once, twice, possibly three times, when a relationship fails. Mostly people handle it. Rather rarely they fail to handle it and commit violent acts. The thing you don’t expect is to simply gibber and twitch, trapped in a mental loop due to circumstances that I had handled before and have handled since.
I mention this because it illustrates the three different things that are being lumped together. Conflating the first with the third makes it impossible to speak of anything that might possibly trigger anyone – which of course, makes it impossible to talk about the thing that just triggered you.
Let’s leave the free-speech issues aside, because I don’t think those even need to be addressed; while important, even critical to a free society, it’s trumped by something that I don’t see discussed at all: this “trigger-me-not” culture makes it impossible to discuss anything related to abuse or repression. You can’t discuss rape without … discussing rape.
So as much as those on the alt-right complain that this emergent culture is oppressing their right to speak exactly what they think in any particular tone they please, the outcome is that it becomes impossible to reasonably discuss any impact they might have due to their assertions that “it’s just words.”
Let’s go back to my meltdown. That’s the price of avoidance and denial; it works for a while, until it suddenly doesn’t. And it’s not just me, this is something that’s been corroborated by other members of the survivor community. You could say, with some accuracy, that’s generally how people realize they need some feedback from other survivors; the sudden and awful collapse of some edifice of rationalization and false consciousness. You begin to welcome (in a sense) the “type two” triggers because that way, you can avoid a type three. That’s my rationalization after the fact, anyway; I’ve found that it’s best to accept and learn from it, because the alternative is more of the same and harder.
And frankly, I’ve learned that even after all that, there is some stuff in my head that I’m going to keep on avoiding as much as I can. Some stuff I can deal with if I have to, yay me, and see no point in exploring further. Situation comedies that rely on humiliation as the primary gag? Sorry, no. Not Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s a type one trigger and it makes it not fun.
But I accept that my wife doesn’t feel that way. That’s what headphones and a videogame is for. But dramas that consist entirely of angry shouting? On those, she respects my safeword, because that can take me to very dark places, quite suddenly. She has her own list of things. They are things that we don’t expect the other person to deal with – at least, not in the context of “entertainment.”
So, with all due respect, I don’t think I’ll be watching any beheading or stoning videos. I won’t be looking at the proof that the cop really shot the dog for no reason – I will have to rely on the words of the person describing the event. That generally gives me enough emotional distance to deal with something that would otherwise bother me a great deal for no particularly useful reason; I don’t need to be convinced that stoning schoolgirls is an ugly, terrible thing.
Since the people who gleefully make such videos are clearly trying to traumatize me and scar my soul, I don’t care to allow that to happen.
But if you need to confront your ignorance of or indifference to such a thing – well, that’s what you are doing – you are triggering yourself. You are accepting a small trauma in order to discern the truth and/or learn more about yourself.
It’s distinctly uncomfortable, and this is likely why the current plague of trigger-me-nots infest our campuses; they do not wish to be confronted with ugly, uncomfortable things that make them feel bad, reconsider their comfortable assumptions or consider – well, all the various things that seem to trigger accusations of triggering.
Having said that, it’s both courteous and useful to give people some idea of what you are about to talk about. It’s not just courtesy – it’s proper construction. Tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.
As I said, I’m a survivor of abuse. Severe and protracted abuse, the sort that has lifetime consequences. If I had to avoid everything and every circumstance that might cause me discomfort, I couldn’t function at all. That seems like a win for the perps, to me.
In order to process trauma, particularly traumas that suddenly leap out of a closet and yell “boo” at you, you need to be able to talk about it.
Trigger-me-nots get in the way of doing this. And the reason they don’t allow the discussion is very simple; they don’t want to accept a simple reality about their reaction: it isn’t rational. It’s a rant; it’s tangential, it assigns blame to others rather than accepting that it’s a personal issue. And that’s absolutely normal. That’s what the hindbrain does when it feels cornered and exposed, it lashes out.
In survivor groups, a useful response emerged in some, after trigger warnings became an obvious, conspicuous failure. It would go something like this.
“I hear that you are upset and I’m not understanding why or what it’s about. Is it possible that you are triggered? Would you like to process that?” It’s completely non-judgemental, while at the same time, not accepting the reflexive abuse.
And then – and this was entirely due to a shared understanding that people who are triggered get to be irrational and it’s nothing to be ashamed of – the reaction was often “Oh. My. Yes. I need chocolate, a hot tub and a think. I’ll be back in an hour when I have words.”
So, yes. Screams about being triggered and having safe spaces violated is irrational. That doesn’t make it wrong. It can well be a reaction to a very real thing – but in the throes of a trigger (that is not simply a manipulative demand to shut down something the trigger-me-not disagrees with,) it’s difficult to know what the rational reaction to that thing would be – and it’s likely not even the thing that’s being screamed at irrationally.
What’s needed is the understanding that while it’s ok to be irrational, it’s not productive at all; we need to learn to take a step back when that happens to see what we are being irrational about – at least, if it’s anything more complicated and less obvious than spiders.
Spiders are an excellent example of an obvious trigger. If you don’t have an irrational fear of spiders, I bet you’ve met someone who does. We don’t expect people to be rational about that and in general, nobody thinks it’s oppressive to give a warning ahead of time. It also tells people who are interested in spiders that there’s something there for them to enthuse about.
We don’t feel the need to judge people for not wanting to adore the cute spider (and weirdly, there are cute spiders). We also don’t generally feel the need to force people to “confront their issues” by dumping spiders on arachnophobes. Only a complete dick would do that.
But then, it’s generally accepted that it’s a largely irrational fear. People are ok with being irrational about it because they aren’t shamed for it – and because they aren’t expected to be rational.
I think we need to look at that example and try to extend it in our lives.
I found your piece very troubling. It reminded me of a much more helpful piece on this topic from the blog Black Girl Dangerous. Here is a direct link to the article in question, and a short blurb. I hope that everyone is able to find perspective and clarity from this outlook.
“In recent months, there has been a heated debate about the use of trigger warnings. Many folks have been arguing that we need trigger warnings (TWs) to create space to heal. This idea has received major pushback, especially when it comes to enforcing TWs on college campuses. In mainstream media, students who ask for trigger warnings are accused of being too “politically correct” and called names like “millennial babies” and “intellectually swaddled college students.”
While this debate has helped to raise the profile of trigger warnings among the public, it is a limited conversation. Both sides of the dialogue have left out a major consideration: Why is it that so many of us carry trauma in the first place?
I want to bring attention to the reality that trigger warnings alone cannot bring us liberation. In pointing out the limits of trigger warnings, my intention is not to minimize the experiences of trauma that make this tool necessary, but rather to offer a critique from a place of love.”
I hope this link works properly… I just copy/pasted from the URL box.
I appreciate the use of warnings when there will be graphic content but by no means do I expect it. I also think the rage displayed by many survivors when others forget or refuse to use these warnings are a reflection of their issues and have little to do with the author’s lack of using a TW. Never ever take responsibility for someone else’s inability to control their emotions. And I say this as a trauma survivor. You are not responsible for their emotions.
My statements are opinion based upon my experience as a survivor of extreme trauma.
This blog post is not only demeaning and dismissive, it is also irresponsible and ignorant.
In-the-moment emotional response to triggers is 100% involuntary and not at all under the survivor’s control, yet the author writes as if anyone with triggers is capable of pre-emptively recognizing them and either coping with them or avoiding them voluntarily, even when they are ubiquitously present and gratuitously violent in popular media outlets.
This dismissive tone is maintained despite the author explicitly recognizing that such triggers are not only ubiquitous but also highly personalized to the traumatized individual.
The point is not that personalized triggers are impossible to avoid anyway, but rather that any triggers embedded in deliberately provocative material have enhanced capacity to re-traumatize due to the stress-inducing, anxiety-provoking context the triggers are found in, such as gratuitously violent acts in edge-of-the-seat entertainment, or gut-wrenching real-life atrocities in breaking news coverage.
The post-9/11 PTSD epidemic was a real thing, not a wimp phenomenon. I do not recall any trigger warnings as the second tower fell on live national television, but I would absolutely put one there if prescience were a real thing too. The nation was under attack! Context matters.
The trigger warning puts one on notice of the stress-inducing context, not the personalized triggers. This ignorance of the importance of context on the part of the author is inexcusable in a trauma survivor.
No one recovers faster from trauma by being re-traumatized in an uncontrolled fashion, yet that is precisely what the author advocates by pooh-poohing the meager tools that traumatized people have available to make rational decisions about what they are exposed to.
Extreme trauma that induces PTSD causes neuroplastic changes to the autonomic nervous system that has evolved this neuroplasticity to protect us from further trauma at a time when such additional trauma could be overwhelming or even fatal. It is an adaptive strategy that has been misunderstood as maladaptive rather than natural, merely because it inconveniences people living in a modern technological society who are impatient for unnaturally fast re-adaptation.
Traumatized people with bones that heal crooked in the wild of course are more cautious because they cannot afford more trauma when there is no modern civilization or medical prostheses to lean upon for protection from the elements, the parasitic infections, the predators, and each other.
Chronic pain is another such neuroplastic adaptation. In extreme trauma, both types of adaptation are frequently present together, and they reinforce each other to protect those who are doubly traumatized. Chronic pain is a constant reminder (perpetual trigger) of the trauma, and PTSD aggravates the chronic pain by exhausting the endocrine system and further driving the pain-addled nervous system down the regenerative spiral. Avoidance and aggression is the withdrawal mechanism that traumatized people rely upon while in recovery. It is supposed to be there.
Recovery of higher function through physical and mental re-exposure therapy necessitates a highly controlled incremental stretching and strengthening environment that avoids re-traumatizing the survivor with triggers of emotional flooding or further aggravating the chronic pain with physical overload. Such measures are time-consuming, labor-intensive, and horrendously expensive, particularly for those who are disabled and cannot care for themselves independently let alone afford appropriate treatment in a financially and emotionally secure non-threatening environment.
Triggering is by definition uncontrolled harmful exposure that provokes more deleterious neuroplastic changes. This is why people who are repeatedly traumatized continue to get worse, and why the meager trigger warning is a pathetically inadequate tool to avoid such repeated traumatization, but a trigger warning is better than nothing at all.
It can take years to regain functional capacity and the recovery is never complete. Trauma is part of the natural neuroplastic learning process that teaches us not to burn ourselves on hot objects by avoiding them. Avoidance of ostensibly non-threatening situations only seems silly and maladaptive to those who have not been blind-sided repeatedly in what were perceived as non-threatening environments.
Some individuals may never be able to experience otherwise inoffensive content without harm. This is why psychiatric hospitals do not allow patients access to anxiety-provoking entertainment on demand. Stressful context of much modern entertainment is too dangerous to the patients and patients are not competent to self-censor. Trigger warnings carry such boundaries into the non-medical environment in a nod to those who are in the perpetual stage of recovery and need a little support from the wider community to continue doing so.
Often times, people who are deeply traumatized are withdrawn and find their primary social contact to be through entertainment media that is chock full of triggers. Ridiculing people who struggle with these issues and dismissing their needs with pejoratives is tantamount to expecting a person with a broken leg to hunt wild game while the rest of the tribe ignores the gangrene.
It is not just offensive and irresponsible, it is also the driving force behind the Trump phenomenon. Trump preys on the insecurities of downtrodden traumatized people of low intelligence who are particularly susceptible by constantly re-triggering them with the specter of ‘the other.
He cynically does so for his own political advantage as yet one more deeply traumatized and troubled survivor who narcistically seeks public affirmation of his welf-worth to compensate for his despairing feelings of inadequacy as a known loser lost in the expanse of his father’s shoes.
Our media outlets are doing the same to us with extreme violence that pumps us with adrenaline to boost us through the stultifying boredom of modern existence in a denatured civilization. That is fine for those who are healthy and accept the risk but it is stupid to inflict such on unsuspecting people who might not have the residual function and base education to manage their entertainment and continuing education in the absence of bright red warning flags flying in their faces.
Trigger warnings are like air bag warnings. They warn us not to put fragile infants in the path of high velocity and impact. A fresh extreme trauma survivor may or may not be an infant, but it is infantile to pretend that such person has full free will just because one random person on the internet mistakenly thinks she has fully recovered.
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