Triggered

Before I start, I want to say that – if you are living with PTSD – this is not about you. I think you’re brave and strong for coping with such a horrendous illness day in, day out and you deserve all the warnings you need to get through life.

Trigger warnings, for the uninitiated, are ‘warnings’ placed on photographs, chunks of text and videos, mainly on the internet.

Trigger. Something that reminds you of a source of trauma, which led to the development of Traumatic Stress Disorder.

You might believe that trigger warnings are necessary for something you’ve experienced in life. You might think that trigger warnings are necessary for you because you don’t want to see something that upsets you whilst you’re going about your day-to-day life.

This is all very well if your source of ‘trauma’ (I put it in quotation marks because, unless you have been diagnosed with Traumatic Stress Disorder, your trauma is self-diagnosed) is something which is mainstream – rape, sexual abuse and suicide all seem to be subjects which are frequently ‘trigger warned’ on the internet. For you, this is fine because these topics are guarded away from you and you’re warned beforehand that you might encounter them.

My question is this: what happens to all the people who have been traumatised by something quite different? What happens if you’re really frightened and triggered into a series of adverse reactions by, for example, kettles, having been burnt badly as a child? This sort of trauma is as real, and as traumatic (for want of a better word) as more the more classic sources of trauma that most people could name if asked, but will you ever see webpages containing pictures, reports and mentions of kettles ‘trigger warned’? You know that the answer to that is no. You know that you would never dream of telling somebody that you are about to have a conversation about kettles, just in case they have associated trauma.

Furthermore, trigger warnings only serve to validate some sources of trauma: it’s OK to be traumatised by past rape, sexual or physical abuse (and it is – what I’m not saying here is that living with trauma from abuse of any kind isn’t something that, sadly, happens to millions of people, because data incontrovertibly proves that this is the experience that many, many, (far too) many people have. However, saying that some trauma elicits a trigger warning, whereas other things do not goes to say that some trauma is more important than other trauma and that is simply not fair. The Detroit Area Study for Trauma (Breslau et al) found that the most common cause of trauma is active service in the armed forces, however, I cannot recall a time when I have ever seen a trigger warning for details of combat.

Whose job is it to decide whose trauma is deserving of a trigger warning? Not mine, and not yours.

Some people might say that, if we place trigger warnings on subjects that are more common causes of trauma (I will admit here that there are, in all probability, more people in the world who are living with abuse-related trauma than kettle-related trauma), then we will upset fewer people and more people will be able to use the internet (always the internet – I’ve seen sexual abuse, for example, being featured on so many television programmes, and as part of so many books that I wonder why it is a movement so limited to the internet?) safely. To this, I would answer that surely it is important not to simply avoid something which causes you prolonged and painful trauma? 

It is, undeniably, important for people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to seek help for their illness. Therapy and treatment, usually involving exposure to the cause of the trauma is increasingly effective (National Institute of Mental Health)  and therefore giving people a way to avoid seeing the cause of their trauma is, arguably, simply avoiding the issue. Exposure therapy is slow and painstaking and it may be that, during this time, people living with PTSD will want to avoid their triggers. However, placing un-enforced trigger warnings on some pages and over some parts of the internet may only serve to lull people into a false sense of security, whereby they are not prepared to face things that may cause them to suffer symptoms of their PTSD.

I also think that this is another occasion where language from a very specific lexical field is brought into the mainstream in a much misunderstood way. When volunteering, I speak to young people all the time who talk to me about their ‘triggers’. Mainly, they just mean ‘things that have happened to make me sad’. I wonder whether this is another example of the loss of language surrounding feelings and emotions? If we teach people to talk about their feelings, rather than saying that they are ‘triggered’ which might mean anything from suicidal to embarrassed, then maybe it will be easier for them find the support they need? In the same way that – at a time where mental illness is becoming more and more acceptable to talk about and widely recognised – we need to give children the language the differentiate between ‘sadness’ and ‘depression’, maybe we need to give them the language to name a whole range of feelings, rather than just saying that they are ‘triggered’.

As with most topics, I can’t honestly say that there is a right or wrong answer. The phraseology ‘trigger’ and ‘trigger warnings’ are a necessary part of life for people dealing with the horrors of PTSD. However, they are not a necessary part of lexicon for people who are simply wishing to describe their emotions and, actually, we risk taking language and the vital art of discussing feelings, away if we do rely too much on the use of ‘trigger’ for situations that do not merit the label. I would also argue that trigger warnings risk becoming a source of censorship led by those who wish to dictate the content of the internet.

I understand that trigger warnings are very necessary for a very select group of people who are living with PTSD. I understand that there are more common causes of trauma which may cause people to be triggered. But I also think that we are teaching people that the best way of coping with difficult subjects is avoiding them. In protecting a minority, we are unwittingly exposing the majority to a practice that will only stifle the ever important practise of facing fears and doing it anyway.

Education, again, is probably the answer. 

Talk about your feelings. Don’t hide from them. Don’t ask other people to protect you from them. Talk about them.

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