For The Last Time That’s Not What a Trigger Warning Is

I really love Brittany Cooper over at Salon. She’s challenged me to think about race and gender politics in new ways, and I almost always find myself informed in new ways when reading her work. So I was extremely disappointed to find this (admittedly slightly outdated) article in which she argues against the use of trigger warnings in the classroom.

Cooper says of difficult topics like violence and race “But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. And trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can.” But just a few paragraphs before she mentions “Those of us who teach about traumatic material – say, war, or the history of lynching, or rape and sexual assault, or domestic violence – usually alert students if they are going to encounter violent material.”

Perhaps I have drastically misunderstood what trigger warnings are (which seems weird because I spend a lot of time reading about them, thinking about them, and also getting triggered by stuff that doesn’t have a warning), but it sounds to me as if Cooper actually does give verbal trigger warnings to her students but is simply against labeling them “trigger warnings”. As I’ve said before (many, many times), a trigger warning is simply a heads up to a reader to let them know that there is potentially triggering content. By triggering, I don’t mean upsetting, new, uncomfortable, or difficult content. I mean content that causes someone to have an intense and uncontrollable emotional reaction, often with flashbacks, physical symptoms (sometimes exclusively physical such as a seizure for someone whose epilepsy is triggered), or impairment of their functioning. It usually involves a mental illness and the symptoms and difficulties associated with that mental illness taking center stage for the individual who is triggered.

A trigger warning is NOT censorship. It is not saying that the content is bad. It is very similar to a content note in that it alerts readers to what’s coming up. Generally it does so to allow someone who might be triggered to take care of themselves. Online that might mean choosing not to read the piece. But I know of almost no teachers who believe that trigger warnings exist to allow students to opt out of certain conversations. Instead, it’s there to allow the student to choose how they’re going to read the piece. Maybe they won’t do this piece of homework in a coffee shop, maybe they’ll give themselves extra time so they can engage in self care, maybe they’ll ask a friend to be around while they read it. If a particular trigger is especially bad, it opens the door for them to discuss with their teacher if there is another way for them to cover the same material. But in no way does telling someone “hey, take care of yourself” mean the same thing as “you don’t have to grapple with this issue.”

Cooper suggests that the way to handle these sensitive topics is to have a well trained teacher who can help students deal openly with their feelings. Hear hear! I absolutely agree that educators should be well schooled in how to address topics that might provoke intense emotions from students. But what that doesn’t deal with is the fact that students generally do the reading that contains these topics on their own, outside of class with no one to support them or walk them through a nuanced discussion.

I have yet to see a clear articulation of how a trigger warning impedes honest discussion and engagement with a variety of ideas. I have yet to see anyone point out how a trigger warning might keep a student from being exposed to new viewpoints or from dealing with difficult subjects and new concepts. Some have suggested that a trigger warning will give a student a preconceived notion of what the text will be like, or will label the content as “bad”, but again, this seems to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be triggered. Yes, I suppose giving someone a heads up on the content in material will give them some preconceived ideas of what will be in the text because someone has just told them what will be in the text. This seems no different from a teacher giving a short overview of what to look for or guided reading or discussion questions. And if the wording of “trigger warning” seems to imply something negative about the reading, a content notice would perform the same function nicely without any baggage.

I’m worried that the vitriol against trigger warnings is just another case of neurotypical needs being prioritized over those of people with different brains. Students should be given accommodations that facilitate their ability to learn, whether that means presenting material in a variety of different forms, getting extra time on tests, or helping them engage with material without sending them into a panic attack or flashback. If teachers really want to facilitate strong engagement with new ideas, having students who are absolutely flooded with emotions is not conducive to that goal. Speaking from experience, those are the times I am least likely to be able to process new information or calmly test out new ideas and viewpoints. While Cooper says that without trigger warnings she has been able to take her class through a variety of difficult pieces of media, I do wonder how many students felt they had to stay quiet or simply weren’t capable of speaking up because they were overwhelmed with emotions.

Again, from personal experience, when a triggering topic comes up unexpectedly, I am not able to speak up or participate in discussion. Ignoring the realities of triggers actively bars students from being able to participate in class when they are suddenly exposed to things that send them spiraling. It does a disservice to the vulnerable students in class.

So again, probably not for the last time: trigger warnings are not the same as censorship. They do not require anyone to change what they’re saying. They do not give students a free pass to opt out of difficult discussions. They simply let students take care of themselves while engaging with difficult material. And sometimes knowing that a topic is coming up is enough to keep it from causing serious distress and setbacks in someone’s recovery.

My Body Is a Trigger

Trigger warning: self harm

I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. Recently I’ve had a lot of thoughts floating around about scars in particular. Summer is coming up, and I happen to have scarring on my legs and stomach that would be visible in shorts or swimsuits. I’ve had a few incidents surrounding scarring and people’s reactions. I can’t help but spend a lot of time wondering what to do with this body that is visibly damaged.

I think there are two main elements to this problem, that often come together to create a third problem. First, my body can trigger others and that is something I don’t want to do (I do in fact have some close friends who may be triggered by the sight of self harm scars). Second, self harm and the scars associated with it tend to inspire a viscerally negative and fearful reaction from those who have never experienced self harm, in such a way that it causes a great deal of distress for everyone involved. Out of these extremely fearful reactions comes the fact that because my body itself can be seen as a trigger, my mental state is often gauged by whether or not people can see physical marks of self harm.

The question of how to approach my body when it’s probably forever marked with the signs of my mental health isn’t an abstract one: this is something that I imagine many people have to face in a very serious, immediate, and daily fashion. Every day when I choose what clothes to put on my body I have to ask myself how much to cover up, how comfortable I am with my scars, whether I will be around people who might be triggered or hurt by seeing my body as it actually is, and how I can be honest with the people around me while not waving self harm in their faces.

It sucks. My body is not only a trigger for others but also for myself, because every time I look at it I get flooded with that mental calculus, wondering if there are people who would judge me differently if they saw it. I wonder if people would pity me or feel disgusted by me or be afraid of me? And at the same time I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want to be brave enough to leave my house while wearing clothing that is comfortable to me and not give a second thought to whether or not someone might glimpse my ankles.

There is something incredibly painful about knowing that your very physical presence can trigger someone. This is where the two problems overlap and reflect back on the individual whose body it is. It’s possible that I could be walking through my life and simply by existing cause someone I care a lot about to panic, fall into anxiety, want to self harm, or have nasty flashbacks. There are a few things out there that are highly likely to trigger people: guns, rape and comments about rape, graphic descriptions of violence, serious calorie and weight loss talk, and definitely self harm scars. It’s terrifying to be one of those things and never be able to change it.

Self harm scars in particular go one further. I am a walking trigger for people who have struggled with self harm in the past, but scars and self harm cause a reaction of terror, disgust, and discomfort in just about everyone. None of my other symptoms have ever inspired panic in the same way that self harm does (I’m still trying to figure out what it is about self harm that gets at people so emotionally). When the people close to me hear that I have self harmed or see a scar, they cannot control their emotions: they turn into fear driven creatures.

Imagine having a part of your body that if it were seen by just about anyone causes their eyes to widen uncomfortably, they start shifting back and forth and searching for a way out of any conversation, or they simply demand that you explain it to them. You can see the fear in them. They look disgusted and hurt. They never quite look at you the same again.

And this is the piece that brings me to my biggest problem with being a walking trigger: in our culture, people read our lives off of our bodies. Your size tells people whether you’re healthy or lazy or kind or generous. Your clothing tells people whether you’re nerdy or preppy or fashionable or slutty or prudish. Whether or not you smile determines if you’re a bitch or a jerk or kind. And especially for those with mental illness, people look at our bodies to read our mental states. I think I could deal with triggering people, I could talk to them, I could ask who needs what, if only my body didn’t come with the assumption that I’m fucked up and suicidal.

Usually when I identify something that’s really difficult about a certain aspect of mental illness, I try to throw out a few suggestions for ways to make it better. Unfortunately I don’t have any today. This is new for me this year, and I have no idea how to navigate the fact that my own body is a minefield. I don’t understand how to make it ok that I hurt people. I don’t know how to move towards body acceptance when my body is doing things I really don’t want it to (like communicating to others that I’m not ok, or triggering others). I don’t know how to be brave and wear my body proudly.

Some day perhaps I’ll go to a dance event and compete wearing a short skirt, or I’ll be able to go to the beach and wear a bikini. Today isn’t that day.

*note: if you are a friend of mine and you do find scars triggering, please let me know so I can make sure to cover up when I see you 🙂

 

Triggers: What Are They, What To Do

I realize that I said I was going to be taking a blog break until this Thursday, but something happened to me last week that I really felt the need to write about and I wanted to do so while it was still fresh. Before I start the post, I want to add the caveat that this whole incident was very emotional and very upsetting for me. I am somewhat angry at some of the people involved, however that is primarily because I am hurt and afraid. I’m going to do my best to keep this post from becoming accusatory or rambling, but if it starts to go in that direction, that’s why.

I want to talk about triggers. A few days ago, I posted on Facebook about something that was triggering to me. I specified that I had been triggered. I was surprised at the response I got. Many people argued with me, told me I was wrong and that what had upset me was good and necessary, and even gave graphic descriptions of why it was so necessary (which was another exercise in being triggered). After things calmed down somewhat and I reiterated that I was being triggered and upset by their comments, I had one person mention to me that the had never heard of a trigger before: they didn’t know what I was talking about and so they didn’t understand that what they were doing was going to hurt me.

I was surprised. I live in a context where trigger is a common word. But I needed this reminder that it’s not something that everyone knows about, and that intelligent and well informed people may still need some explanations. So with that in mind, here’s a primer on what a trigger is, some basic do’s and don’ts of how to react to someone’s triggers, and a brief description of what it feels like to be triggered.

A trigger is an intense, uncontrollable, emotional reaction to something. It is typically a term reserved for someone with a mental illness because it is more than simply being upset or bothered by something. Triggers generally are related to past traumas that have left your brain impacted in some way. This means that when you see or hear or experience something that is a trigger, your emotions completely take over and you are in extreme, intense distress almost immediately. In its immediacy it is similar to an anxiety or a panic attack, although unlike those it doesn’t require that the individual react in certain ways. One could react to a trigger with a panic attack, but one could also react by sucking it up and dealing with it (which is what people are often expected to do).

A trigger is not the same as throwing a temper tantrum over something small, although it might appear to be so from the outside. It is also not weakness or simply being “oversensitive”. To take a parallel from physical health, let’s imagine you had broken your ankle. A trigger is like those elements of the ankle that never heal, only in your brain. Triggers are indications of where trauma has injured your brain. Being triggered is somewhat like being kicked in a broken ankle. It hurts, it’s scary, and you cannot stop that it hurts and is scary. The fact that you might have a friend who would laugh off getting kicked in the ankle doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for being hurt. It simply means that you have different situations.

Triggers can be all sorts of things depending upon the difficulties that an individual has faced before. For a vet, it could be loud noises, or the sound of helicopters. For someone who was raped, it could be the color of the curtains in the room it happened. For someone with an eating disorder it could be talk of calories and dieting. Triggers come in all shapes and sizes and don’t always make sense from the outside, but they’re simply about what sets off certain scripts and chain reactions in your brain.

So if you’re around someone and they say that they’ve been triggered or that something is triggering, what should you do?

First and foremost, accept that they are triggered by what they say they are triggered by. Respect them to know their own mental health better than you do, and whatever you do don’t tell them that they’re overreacting, that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel, that it’s inappropriate or wrong to feel what they feel, or that they should be able to deal. These statements are all very invalidating of the experience of being triggered: a trigger is not an opinion or an argument. It’s not something you can disagree with or argue with. It’s an experience. That would be like telling someone that you don’t agree with how much it hurt them to step on their broken ankle. It simply doesn’t make sense to say. So accept what they have said, don’t argue with it, and don’t tell them it’s wrong.

As a corollary DO NOT intentionally trigger someone. It’s important to remember that you’re not doing anything edgy, heroic, cool, or badass by ignoring someone’s triggers. You are not telling someone that you won’t put up with bad behavior or temper tantrums, you’re not teaching them about how harsh the real world is, you’re not “just having some fun”. You are being intentionally cruel. You are looking at an open wound and deciding what you can throw in it to make the person scream. This is a sick exercise. Don’t do it.

If someone opens up enough to you to tell you that they’re vulnerable in a certain state, the best thing you can do is ask them how you can help. Validate what they’re feeling, tell them that it must be horrible, and then ask if there’s anything you can do to help them avoid things that really hurt them that way, or help them when they’ve been triggered. Different people need different things when they’re distressed, so asking them what helps them is very important. If at all possible, try to do this when they’re not in the middle of being triggered.

Remember that when someone has been triggered, they are not themselves. If they’re typically someone whose statements are open to discussion, typically someone who’s analytical and wants to discuss things, typically someone who can just deal with whatever life throws at them, know that those things may not be the case when they’re in this extremely vulnerable state. Remember that you might need to give them a bit more space, or treat them a little more gently than you typically would. If they don’t want to talk about whatever has triggered them, let that rest. If they don’t want to solve whatever problem has triggered them, let that rest. If they simply need to vent, let that rest. They’re hurting.

So all of this discussion has been fairly hypothetical, but I’d like to finish by giving you a concrete example of what it feels like when you’ve been triggered. I’m going to use the example that prompted this whole post because it’s the most fresh in my mind and because I’ve spent a lot of time reliving it recently so I feel it will be the most vivid and descriptive. (Note: there is a trigger warning for eating disorders on this)

Earlier this week I went to Starbucks. This was out of the ordinary for me, but I had a Starbucks gift card so I went to Starbucks. I walked in and looked at the menu and there, listed next to each and every drink was a calorie count. I felt my whole body involuntarily tense, my breath catch. I nearly turned and left the store, or bolted for their restroom. All I could think about was that I deeply wanted to stick my fingers down my throat and puke up everything I had eaten for the last week. I wanted to leave this store and go home and hide where I would not be tempted by food, where I could wait until my body shriveled away and passed out, where I could safely avoid food for at least the next week. All these thoughts ran through my head immediately.

I took a deep breath and shoved them away so that I could get in line. I had to go to work and I was exhausted. I needed some caffeine. I stood in line with my mind racing and racing. I had to get a small. I had to get the lowest calorie count thing available on the menu, even if I didn’t like it. NO, fuck the calories, I should get the HIGHEST calorie count just to prove that I can. Or maybe a compromise, maybe if I just get a small of what I actually wanted I’d be ok. No that wouldn’t work, it was a full breakfast worth of calories and I don’t eat breakfast. Breakfast is unacceptable.

I barely remember getting to the register and ordering something in a haze. It bothered me for the rest of the day, and I threw up a post on Facebook about how distressed I was. I got comment after comment about how calorie counts are necessary, about all the hidden calories in our food, about the obesity epidemic, graphic descriptions of the size and calorie counts of Starbucks drinks and how they were going to lead to death from obesity. I have not been able to stop thinking about calories and this incident ever since. I imagine I will never go to Starbucks again.

I’m worried about going to restaurants now, something I’d finally been starting to get over. I keep replaying over and over how much I keep eating and wondering how many calories are in each dish. I had stopped thinking about calories for a long time, and now they’re hiding in the back of my mind again. I’m terrified that my diet is entirely unhealthy, that I’m going to give myself diabetes, that I’m going to become obese and get heart disease. I have been unable to focus at work during an incredibly important time, I have found myself dissociating extremely badly, I have almost cried at work. I’ve been unable to sleep, constantly composing responses in my mind that justify why I was hurt, struggling to let myself eat, struggling against the impulse to self harm or to purge.

It feels as if my mind simply can’t shut off or won’t shut off because the most important thing in the world has presented itself: calories. And now I need to react, protect myself, run, escape in any way possible. That is a trigger.

P.S. For anyone who thinks that triggers don’t exist or are made up 1.Go fuck yourself and 2.There is a great deal of psychological research into the ways the brain is injured by trauma and how that affects the way someone functions for the rest of their life. It’s real. Figure out google and find some articles.