Edit desk: Trigger warning: ‘trigger warnings’


Obviously every single one of you has already read my personal column. But I’ll introduce myself again, for the people in the back.

Jackie Peterson

Jackie Peterson

Hi, my name is Jackie (that’s where you go “Hi, Jackie”). I have PTSD. It’s a long story, but that’s not what this article is about. More about that here.

Because this article is about something I have: triggers.

Triggers are officially described by PsychCentral as “something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.”

A Wikipedia article on “trauma trigger” has something similar to say: “A trauma trigger is an experience that causes someone to recall a previous traumatic memory, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic and can be indirectly or superficially reminiscent an earlier traumatic incident.”

Clear-cut definitions of triggers seem to include trauma or PTSD, but I’ve seen the word used by people with anxiety disorders other than PTSD, too. Many college-aged men and women with or without PTSD are calling for what’s referred to as a “trigger warning.” This refers to when one of their triggers might be heard, seen, smelled, felt or tasted in an academic setting.

Now, if you can assume triggers are things like blood, gore, rape, assault or anything similar, trigger warnings seem pretty good. Those kinds of things are already upsetting, and if someone with PTSD or some other mental illness goes into a spiral when those things come up, then maybe professors should be made aware of that and try to prevent it. In fact, similar warnings exist already in the form of content warnings on things like video games, television shows and movies. These content warnings are not specifically for the mentally ill, though, and are usually focused on already upsetting content such as gore, violence or sexual content — consensual or not. To clarify, I have no quarrel with content warnings.

Unlike content warnings, trigger warnings can be unique to each person. Some of my triggers include, but are not limited to: The show “Psych,” the name Juliet — the spelling Juliette counts, too — as well as a few key phrases said by my abusers, and a few different physical positions or touches. Of course, I’m not including talking about rape and assault, which would be upsetting to anyone and is obviously pretty uncomfortable for me. Some of these make sense, but some, like the show “Psych,” aren’t. Who in their right mind would feel the need to censor their conversations about a TV show in case a trauma survivor heard?

People can be triggered by anything that reminds them of their trauma. You can never know. And that’s only one issue with trigger warnings.

But there are many who are in support of these warnings. The Guardian published an opinion article in favor of them in August, and the author, Lindy West, brings up interesting points.

Trigger warnings are meant to “increase engagement and increase accessibility by allowing students with trauma histories to manage their mental health,” West wrote.

But I have to disagree. Avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, so I assume that many trauma survivors will ignore anything with a trigger warning on it in favor of safer, easier content.

The author also includes a pointed comment insisting that triggers are being ignored and actively fought against because they are “associated primarily with young women.” There isn’t a source listed there, so I have to assume that the sentence was completely opinion, and the point is never mentioned again. She then cites the most insensitive anti-trigger warning articles I’ve seen so far.

Another article by a self-proclaimed feminist writing for The Huffington Post was anti-trigger warning. Rather than calling college students “coddled” — a la The Atlantic — or asking survivors and students to “grow up” — a la The Daily Beast — the author talks about how trigger warnings might be ineffective.

She is a trauma survivor, and her triggers are much stranger than mine: “sexual abuse, physical abuse, infant/child loss, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, OCD, addiction, eating disorders, pancakes, gyms — but only In-Shape — bikes, running shorts, scales, mirrors, tape measures, and asparagus.”

She, like me, questions the usefulness and effectiveness of trigger warnings.

She mentions that warnings might be ignored, because reading one is like someone telling you not to look at a crime scene. It appeals to your curiosity. On the other hand, when survivors heed the warnings, discourse could be limited because of avoidance of the content.

She also mentions that these warnings might not give credit where credit is due. Some survivors are not ready to talk or hear about their triggers, but some are. This author and I are in the same boat: it might not be comfortable to face our triggers, but we do it because we want to heal.

There are too many unknowns about trigger warnings to start enforcing their use in colleges or anywhere else. Content warnings for the general public is one thing, but trigger warnings get too specific and create too gray of an area.

“Does every trauma survivor need a warning? Does the presence of a warning presume PTSD where there may be none? Does it demean those who have recovered from PTSD? And what about avoidance? PTSD sufferers are admonished to confront their trauma,” the author of The Huffington Post article wrote. “The trigger warning may actually prevent them from doing so.”

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