What’s it like to be triggered, really? We hear the terms “triggered” and “trigger warning” thrown around a lot, even used as a joke. Because people hurl the phrase so thoughtlessly, others have come to mock it, even hate it. If you’ve been anywhere near the discussion around trigger warnings in the past year, I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard someone spit out the phrases, words dripping with indignation and contempt.
Per the new blog schedule, today is “Tell All Tuesday.” (One day, I’ll have a more intriguing name, but, while I love to write, creative naming is a bit of a struggle for me.) What’s the idea behind this Tuesday series? It’s more personal. It’s not about resources and recovery as much as it’s about sharing my experiences in what I hope will be a meaningful way to help further discussions on mental health and combat stigma. In that spirit, I would like to spend the inaugural post in this series talking a little bit about what it’s like, for me, to be triggered, and what it’s like to hear these debates around trigger warnings as someone who lives with the potential of being set off by external events.
I live with complex post traumatic stress disorder. Complex trauma occurs when a person is living in a dangerous situation from which there is no obvious form of escape. For me, those traumatic experiences involve growing up in a home with abuse and domestic violence, and then living in a marriage with domestic violence myself. I am very new to “the PTSD thing.” I only became really symptomatic after my husband left in November of last year. But, I’ve learned quite a lot about being triggered.
First, and very importantly, a trigger can be anything. The word “Trigger” means different things to different people. For the purpose of this post, I am talking about triggers that relate to trauma and a traumatic reaction. They can be large and “obvious”, or subtle, sometimes seemingly coming out of no where. “Obvious” triggers would be graphic depictions of a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, war, a car wreck, a hostage situation, etc. Depending on your particular trauma, any realistic reenactments of something similar will probably get you revved up and incredibly uncomfortable. “Subtle” triggers can literally be anything related to your specific trauma. To give you an idea of how something “mundane” can really trigger someone, I cannot listen to Journey. My stepfather used to listen to it when he was drinking, and if I hear the opening notes of “Faithfully” or someone singing “Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world,” I become seriously on edge. Honestly, even thinking about those songs to type that sentence has upped my anxiety a little bit. I hear Journey and my physical, subconscious reaction is “danger is likely coming, and I need to be prepared for it.” Living with PTSD is living with your particular triggers, the known and the unknown, the avoidable and the inevitable. Hearing Journey is pretty inevitable. Talk about overplayed! It’s something I’m still working on as far as being able to ground myself and prevent a flashback or panic attack. I think of triggers like a lurking monster, always ready to jump scare you, horror movie style, when you least expect it. Much like horror movies, even when you know it’s coming, it can still make you jump.
I’m a huge fan of the movie Jaws. It’s one of my all time favorites. I watch it every fourth of July. I think of my PTSD like Jaws. Sometimes, it’s in my face, trying to rip me apart. Sometimes, it’s lurking just under the surface as feelings of suspense and concern rise. Sometimes, it’s not really on the radar, but I know in the back of my mind that the threat is always there. I no longer have the ability to enjoy a nice, relaxing swim in the ocean in this metaphor, because I know what is hiding under the waves. I have a very hard time “just chilling” and “fully relaxing.” I’m just too hyper-vigilant for it.
Being triggered, for me, is a complicated spectrum of responses. It’s not just one reaction, or one behavior. Sometimes, it’s simply heightened anxiety and being on edge. Sometimes, it’s a full blown panic attack. Sometimes, it’s a dissociation; no panic, no reaction, just shutting down for a bit. Then, there are flashbacks.
Flashbacks are brutal. They are Jaws leaping from the water and ripping flesh from my body. There’s a lot of misconception around flashbacks thanks to the media. They are not all word for word reenactments of trauma, or hallucinations that the trauma is happening again. (Though, sometimes these types of flashbacks do happen.) Occasionally, with very direct and strong triggers, I have had full blown flashbacks. I don’t usually remember much from them (even the “mild” ones) but I usually remember what brought them on. When I was in the waiting room at the hospital, a lady in the next room was screaming. She believed that the doctors were going to kill her. But the words she was screaming were “No! Stop! Please!” etc. This triggered me deeply, as it sounded very much like my mother during violent situations with my stepfather. My friend tried to keep my attention in the present, but I could not. The room faded and I was not there anymore. I don’t know what happened, but when I came out of it, I was across the room against the wall with my friend in front of me looking very concerned. That was a “full blown” flashback. But mine, at least, are nearly always what I call “half flashbacks. These experiences are not typically that dramatic. I dissociate. I can feel it coming on sometimes. I start to “drift.” First, my body gets tingly. My hands and feet get cold, but my core feels hot. My heart rate increases. I start to “zone out”. I’m half “here” and half “there.” I’ve had a few of these types of flashbacks around friends. Obviously, being friends, they tend to attempt to help me through it and find my tether back to the here and now. I can hear my friends speaking to me, but responding is very difficult. Sometimes, I do lose touch with “here” and it usually takes me a little bit to “get back.” But I don’t do a whole lot physically. I don’t really speak. I pretty much comply with whatever someone tells me to do. I’ve heard that my leg tends to shake a lot and that my muscles tense up, but that’s really it. Not nearly as “exciting” as the flashbacks you see in movies, I know.
Remember how I said that triggers can be anything? I meant it. I’ve been triggered into a flashback before simply because I felt tense and panicky. Sometimes there is no trigger beyond the fact that I feel similar to the way I felt during a moment of trauma. That is how subtle a trigger can be.
So, with all that said, the question we see posed a lot is “are trigger warnings necessary or are they just ‘coddling’ those pesky, oversensitive Millennials?”
First of all, the “trigger warning debate” is typically centered around classroom settings. In an educational situation, trigger warnings are not just a good idea, I would argue that they are essential. In these instances, I’m talking about the “obvious” triggers. 1 out of every 3 girls and 1 out of every 5 boys will be sexually assaulted before they reach the age of 18. 700,000 children in the United States experience child abuse annually. 5 million children witness domestic violence each year in the United States. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience domestic abuse of some form in their lives. And these numbers only speak to four forms of trauma one may endure. Statistically speaking, if you’re teaching a lecture class on a college campus, a decent portion of your student body has experienced some form of trauma. Being fully triggered is an all-encompassing feeling. When trigger blindsides you, and you have no time to prepare, the effect is often much stronger than if there is warning. There are grounding techniques and coping skills one may use to stay present and engage in their education. Without a warning, those students who have experienced trauma will not be learning anything. They will be battling with their memories, intrusive thoughts, and panic trying not to make a scene.
In college, I studied social work. Thankfully, even prior to trigger warnings becoming “mainstream,” my social work classes were full of them. Teachers would say, “Today, we’re going to be talking about working with sexual assault survivors. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself if this is a sensitive topic for you.” After an intense class, each of my teachers would always make themselves available to talk and process with students who may have reacted strongly to the topic covered in class that day. In the small sized social work classes, it was very rare for someone to leave class during such a class. There was a carefully fostered sense of trust and openness in our classrooms that allowed for very intimate conversations. When talking about trauma, it was perfectly acceptable (and honestly encouraged) to share personal connections. One teacher would always say, “What about the people in this case study and the situation presented hits a tender spot in your heart?” This would allow for engaging and supportive conversations around our own experiences, how those experiences would shape our clinical practice, and what we could each do to take care of ourselves and each other as friends and colleagues.
I recognize that most classes are not designed to facilitate such self-exploration. But having trigger warnings in place can help someone prepare for the trigger, and utilize coping skills to stay present. Anyone who has a problem with an English Lit. professor saying “The reading today contains a rape scene. Please take care of yourself.” at the beginning of a class does not properly understand the reason for trigger warnings. There seems to be a misconception that “trigger warnings” somehow means that the material is not taught. This is not the case in any college class in which I have participated.
In America, the sad fact (as demonstrated by the statistics listed above) is that a substantial amount of our population has survived some form of trauma. While it is true that not all trauma survivors develop PTSD, I don’t believe that there is any shame in shifting our standards, especially in learning environments, to something a little more trauma-informed.
It’s true that no one can predict every potential trigger. (Even I don’t know all my triggers, and I sure as hell don’t expect you to know them.) Generalized trigger warnings harm no one and may substantially help a trauma survivor. As someone who has been through the hell of flashbacks and panic attacks set off by a trigger, I fully support the use of trigger warnings.
The overuse, and superfluous use of the term “triggered” is a very frustrating issue to me. When people use it as slang for “upset” or even “mildly inconvenienced”, I get very angry. It’s right up there as saying “So and so is so bipolar!” It’s stigma. It’s ignorance. Saying “I’m so triggered” flippantly is a large part of what creates this “debate” around “trigger warnings.” It shapes the conversation toward “Those kids are just too oversensitive. They need to grow up and face the real world. There are no trigger warnings there.” And that is a true statement. Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. But to diminish the experience of being triggered, to suggest that using trigger warnings in classrooms is unnecessary, and that the people asking for them are childish and spoiled, is incredibly invalidating and demeaning to trauma survivors. It can be deadly. The shame around PTSD and being triggered is already immense. (Believe me, when you’re just doing life and all of the sudden you “come to” with a friend in front of you looking worried because you just went catatonic for ten minutes, you feel pretty damn stupid. “Why can’t I control this?” “I need to be stronger so I can make this stop.” “Oh, great. I’m crazy and now my friend knows it.” These are all thoughts I, personally, have had after being triggered.) When I say I support trigger warnings, and someone says, “You’re just being oversensitive.” my traumatized brain, which already tried to minimize my feelings and my memories and the things I’ve experienced, latches to the sentiment that I’m overreacting and that it can’t really be that bad. And that starts a vicious cycle of depression, shame, and self-loathing. I can’t wait for the day when we no longer minimize people’s lived experiences and recovery process by flippantly throwing around psychological terms like they’re nothing. Until then, I’ll keep raising my voice in opposition and speaking my truth.
***PTSD is a lot more common than you may think. 1 out of 10 women and 1 out of 20 men will develop some form of PTSD in their lives.***
If you’re interesting in the “other side” of this debate, I’d like to aim you in the direction of my friend Elizabeth’s blog Betty’s Battle Ground for her post on why she doesn’t use trigger warnings. It’s a good read, and I respect her opinions!
Thanks for reading! As always, I love hearing your thoughts! Drop a comment or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram! Also, a friendly reminder that I now have a Patreon account with some pretty cool perks! If you like my work here on ParallelDichotomy, I would love to have your support! Come back in two days for the second installment of Recover Thursday! Pop in for tips, tricks, resources, support, and understanding in mental health recovery!