The Soapbox: On Trigger Warnings & Facing Trauma

When I got to my friend’s place for my self-defense lessons last week, he told me we were going to do basic self-defense techniques and toward the end, simulated assaults. The simulated assaults were walk-bys: We would walk across the room in opposite directions and he would either do nothing, or he’d very suddenly grab my throat and wrist. The purpose was to train me to react quickly and correctly if it were to happen to me in real life.

But it had happened to me in real life, and after the first or second walk-by, I wound up having visceral, vivid flashbacks to my former partner putting me in arm locks and finger locks, pinning me, kicking me, putting his hand over my mouth, pushing my head into the floor or the bed. I hyperventilated and cried, and my friend hugged me and helped me calm down. He also didn’t let me stop, because the things I experience will upset me sometimes and I still have to know how to handle it, especially when physical danger is involved.

Which brings me to trigger warnings.

There’s been a push in academia to provide trigger warnings for courses and texts that include discussions of potentially traumatic experiences and excuse students who might be triggered from the class or activity without penalty. But it’s not just in academia; it’s online and it’s social, too. The idea of “triggers” comes from therapeutic treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s meant as a way to frame and understand the reasons trauma flashbacks and blackouts happen so that when a trigger occurs, the person can identify it rationally and cope with the involuntary reaction they have to it without receding from having a normal life or doing damage to their self or others.

It’s not meant as a way to avoid things that we guess might be upsetting, though. By that I first mean that triggers aren’t consistent or predictable; sometimes the phrase “it’ll be fine” is a trigger to me and sometimes it’s not, so it’s not worth avoiding every possible situation in which someone might say it (as if that’s viable anyway). So I’m only working on a hunch if I decide to avoid a trigger completely; I don’t actually know that it’ll be a problem. Second, I say “upsetting” rather than “triggering” because the phrase and concept have been co-opted and are now used not to signify events in which a person might have an actual triggering experience, where they have a post-traumatic flashback or blackout, but an experience in which they might be offended or upset. That’s emotionally lazy, especially in comparison to the work that people who are diagnosed with PTSD do to be able to function normally.

What the effect would be in the end, if we were to excuse everyone who might be upset by a situation from talking about it, is that those of us who haven’t gone through that experience will be discussing it amongst ourselves with no input from someone who has (this is called ignorance). I don’t want that. I want to be asked about rape and abuse because I want to help other people to understand it and themselves better, and if I don’t feel like it’s a healthy or productive conversation, I’m an adult and I can choose not to participate in it. If there’s a theory that Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe will trigger memories of colonialism, I’d like to hear about those memories so long as the other person feels like sharing them, because sharing experiences helps us to empathize with and understand each other and ourselves. Avoidance takes away our voices.

The fervor surrounding trigger warnings also makes it seem like it’s not possible to survive a triggering experience intact. It treats us like we must be protected or we’ll be further traumatized, like we’re broken and we can’t be dropped again and hope to be glued back together. But that’s a wrong way of thinking about trauma: Trauma doesn’t break people. It changes us, and it changes the way we have to operate, and sometimes we feel broken because we can’t go back to the way things were before the trauma occurred, but it essentially boils down to having to cultivate a new self-awareness and new habits. That isn’t so bad. The way to help a traumatized person isn’t to try to pad them from reality, it’s to be patient, understanding, consistent and predictable.

And the flip side of that is what’s at the core of the trigger warning debate, to me: I think the people who are worried that they or others might be triggered are the people who aren’t invested in doing the hard and patience-taxing work of dealing with trauma. I don’t know many people who are in recovery from PTSD who want to be warned every single time something might trigger them, but it seems like there are an awful lot of people who aren’t post-traumatic who fret for us. You’re not actually concerned about us and our trauma, you’re concerned about you and your inability to deal with our trauma.

At the end of my self-defense lesson last week, I was smiling and laughing with my friend, if exhausted. My shoulders had lowered about four inches. I had gotten better at reacting and landing blows. Most importantly, I wasn’t freezing up anymore: I don’t let my trauma force me to stand still, I accept it and I move past it.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler. You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.