What’s Wrong With Trigger Warnings?

This article is part of a series on Positive Individualism

The short answer: nothing, and everything.

There I sat, just post-hospitalization after my first suicide attempt, amidst a very small community of diverse urban individuals.  It was the dawn of the new millennium, and I was just fresh to living in such a dense population, high-school graduation a seemingly, abnormally, distant memory despite occurring earlier the same year.  Group therapy?  I was still getting used to the idea of individual therapy, consisting of mind altering drugs and cold clinicians probing the “fascinating” and allegedly “death-obsessed” crevices of my psyche.

We were supposed to discuss our problems, the issues that had brought us to this three week out-patient intensive, and I did try. As I spoke of how some people might think this was a cry for attention, giving my position as a local leader in some quite vague respects to my peers, and that this was just simply a bunch of fun for me another lady across the circle criticized me because I was smiling and didn’t seem that upset.  I said it was because I was nervous.  I guess I was supposed to be grave, crying, or flat faced even after being forced to confront the alien turn in my still existing life for ten straight days.

Therapy was a strange concept to me; mental self-care, up until that point, had seemed unnecessary.  Not unnecessary per se, it just hadn’t occurred to me.  You just were what you were and felt what you felt and that was that.  Cognitive and dialectical behavioral, acceptance and commitment, prolonged exposure, gestalt, and schema therapy were all completely new concepts to me and for the most part seemed to skirt the real passionate existential issues my teenage identity was grappling with.  Over time I came to understand the synthesis and close connection between my thoughts, my attitude, my philosophy, and my actions, and I believe that for me at that time it was simply a matter of maturity.

When I was first detained in the hospital for a total of two weeks, a sentence I was to repeat often in the following decade, I came across a number individuals of the kind I had never encountered.  I at once came face to face with the homeless, the abused, the rejected, the self-destructive, the compulsive, and the suffering, in a way unimaginable to me from the vantage point of my nice, large log home and non-broken family in the semi-rural mountains.

Through repetition, I was to meet more and more every time, as I realized that in my own way I was as much to them as they were to me.  Even though, I didn’t necessarily experience the same things.  My youngest male child wasn’t sexually abused by a teenager from the neighboring suburb, and I didn’t have to tell him over the telephone while clinically incarcerated not to take a knife to school for defense against the same said teenager.  I didn’t laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times, or fear going to the grocery store because the local sheriff sexually abused me as a child.  Nor did I legally change my name to a given divinity and refuse to use the restroom because I was enlightened and thus “shitless”, being that I absorbed light to survive.  Pouring cranberry juice over all my food wasn’t going to save me from the nurse injected electricity, to which I was deathly allergic, and I didn’t have HIV nor was disowned by my family for being homosexual.  It would be disingenuous however to say I didn’t learn something empathetic from my interactions both about others, and about my own demons.

This was the setting, in this circle of diverse urban individuals, that I first heard the term “trigger.”  A woman in her late twenties used it in regards to something that could have happened to her, but she deftly avoided the experience.  I didn’t understand it at first, but it was explained to me that it was something that could bring back traumatic memories.  In this case, the violence of being abused by a person in authority, with seemingly no recourse available.  This puzzled me, as I believed, being an omniscient and omnipotent teenager, that having direct exact control over my thought process such a thing as a “trigger” couldn’t exist.

The concept of a “trigger” goes back as far as our consciousnesses have had the ability to recall past sensory stimuli.  We all know and are deftly familiar with the idea that a certain smell, or a certain phrase, even a certain texture, can bring back memories of the past, both general and specific, and often times an emotion that either was occurring at the time, or has built up from introspection.  This is a natural and even desirous element of experiencing our psychic processes and a reinforcement of our individual identity.  But what happens when what we remember is painful?

The term “trigger” as used by the fresh faced twenty-something in my support group is couched in the idea of trauma, and its definition.  For some people, when something traumatic happens to them, memories of that drama can begin to take up a role in the mind that hinders their functionality.  This is recognized in western psychiatric circles as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD).

PTSD was first officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (otherwise known as the “DSM”) in its third edition, published in approximately 1980.  This inclusion marked a culmination of the work of psychiatrists C. F. Shatan, and Robert Lifton, who argued that the traumas of war, otherwise known as “catastrophic stress disorder”, were psychological and long-term.  The DSM is now in its fifth edition, and though some trivia has changed, PTSD has stayed and proven itself as a useful diagnostic in treating the public.  Because trauma and its definition are very important aspects in understanding the usage of the term “trigger,” I am apt to elaborate the exact diagnostic criteria employed by the DSM in regards to trauma:

The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows: (one required)

  1. Direct exposure.
  2. Witnessing, in person.
  3. Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
  4. Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, collecting body parts; professionals repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures. [emphasis my own]

For sake of clarity, this is the diagnostic I use throughout this article in regards to someone who has experienced trauma.  This may seem like a closed definition, and I am sympathetic with the possible feelings of dismissal these criteria may invoke.  To me, with my own history with “triggers,” I know that my indirect exposure was murky at best when it came to this definition.  I also would add that any unwanted sexual activity, including any involving minorities, is “sexual violence.”  In its defense, I use this language with the aim of being able to distinguish trauma, as defined, from the appropriated, relativistic, and even victim obsessed term employed by others as detailed further.

I have never been diagnosed with PTSD, but I do have what I would call an experiential history with the notion of “triggers.”  As an aspect of my Borderline Personality Disorder, I survived but did not process many difficulties in my earlier life, and the processing of these events decided to take place in my late twenties.  One day I went to my nurse practitioner for my latest psychiatric check in and described feeling in horror all the time, being obsessed with certain ideas, as if my thoughts were not in my control, and a seeming inability to function on a daily level.  I was tagged with “Atypical Psychosis” and put on more medication.  I went into an extremely deep depression, losing the will to live and even the ability to normally experience positive emotions.  I also developed highly intense chronic constant anxiety, which went untreated for the duration.

My condition seemed to center around this idea that I was unworthy, or somehow inferior, and that I was destined by my genetics and upbringing to never “amount to anything.”  There were many players in the field, including the delusion that I’m somehow smaller in stature to every other male on the planet, but the biggest and loudest player, my constant terror for those two and a half years, was what I perceived as other people’s sexuality.  My mind was obsessed with various visions, the majority of which were inspired by the internet, and I would constantly place myself in these visions and live out the horror.  Some of these visions were real life memories from my childhood, while many were just things I “knew existed somewhere at some point.”  I was horrified by society, and in a sense, horrified with having to live with other people’s sexuality.  Imagine that first reaction of horror you have when you learn of something new.  Now stretch that same intensity, that same revulsion and fear, for weeks on end, twenty-four-seven.  I couldn’t move from being curled up on the couch and often slept eighteen to twenty hours a day.

All of this horror and suffering was exacerbated by what I came to identify as a set of particular subjects.  I didn’t realize at the time they were being called “trigger warnings,” and I didn’t understand that my living hell I was constantly descending into could be considered being “triggered.”  A mention in a magazine about how more attractive males made more money?  The story of a young Pokemon Party devolving into the dissemination of hard core pornography thanks to the internet?  The idea that somebody masturbated in public and got away with it?  The news report that someone was stabbed in a crowd, and nobody seemed to care as they stepped over the body to get their chicken buckets?  The account in that book about how doctors experimented on unknowing and thus unwilling mental health patients?  Any one of those are perfect examples of what would send me reeling, sometimes ripping up books and newspapers, destroying my own personal things, or injuring myself, but beyond that obsessing for weeks on end and feeling constantly horrified and completely couch-bound.  It was so overpowering I couldn’t even be in the same room when sexuality in any form was discussed, I would literally leap up and dart out of the room as fast as possible with no warning, even mid sentence.

I had all the hallmarks of PTSD, criterions B through G, even including dissociative presentations.  I dissociated so bad once that for two weeks I couldn’t have my own train of thought, I couldn’t watch television because it altered my consciousness too much, I could barely feed myself, and eventually was hospitalized in the acute ward.  My only saving grace was that I could still hold a back and forth conversation and was able to relate what was happening to me.  I write about this in an effort to establish my own personal understanding of “triggers,” and to extend a sympathetic hand to those with similar experiences that don’t necessarily fit neatly under the given diagnostic.  I’m not an expert via my experience by any means, and I do not write from that vantage point, but I hope the reader can extend to the author a recognition of understanding.  When it comes down to it, each person has to examine and judge his own internal experience in the light of objective measures and expert treatment.

A “trigger warning” is the preemptive statement that the contents of a particular item of media contains stimuli and information that could constitute a trauma “trigger” for any given consumer.  Superficially, this notion alone contains no moral value, there are no mandates nor guidance of action suggested.  Before we encounter media we are generally given an idea of what it contains either through a headline, an image, or a description, and we typically choose if we want this media to occupy our attention based on these factors.  Content companies, such as cable television, already recognize that some material may be inappropriate for some viewers, and advise us before shows to employ “viewer discretion”.  A “trigger warning” inhabits this same space, in essence warning consumers of potentially disturbing material.  These warnings can be useful, giving media consumers the opportunity to avoid themes and material that they might find offensive, such as bloody violence, dead bodies, or hateful swastikas, and not bring them up onto their screen.  They can even serve to be “inclusive”, in the way of conveying the sensitivity of a given subject of discussion, reminding the participants of the difficulties that some individuals might experience without having to make those individuals reveal themselves.  Some individuals are in such “head spaces” that they are currently unwilling and unable to participate in such a discussion, like I was above, and a warning gives them opportunity to excuse themselves.

“Trigger warnings” as being popularly used on the internet can trace their origin to early social sites, such as popular journaling site LiveJournal.  A user of such a website is presented with a “feed” of content curated from sources to which the user “subscribes”.  In this way, the user has minimal control over what specifics will appear on their feed.  If someone posts a highly disturbing image, it will just pop up on a user’s feed without warning.  By “hiding” the content behind a link and a warning, this allows the user to have more fine grain control over what they are exposed to and gives them the opportunity to skip whats beyond their interest and comfort.  In this simple and clear light, there is nothing “problematic” about “trigger warnings.”  They are simply a tool of modern discourse to be employed in the context of giving more control and choice to the consumer.  However the modern usage of the term “trigger warning” is not this simple, and in fact has taken on contexts and connotations through the concept’s abuse that are worthy of wide criticism.

The Psychological Perspective

Psychologically speaking, there are two aspects of these warnings: the state of being “triggered”, and the strategy employed in their recognition.  The concept of a “trigger”, as outlined above, implies not only the existence of a harrowing psychological state dependent on exposure to the trigger, but a state that is uncontrollable and involuntary.  This psychological state has been popularly coined as being “triggered.”  Though this term definitely has roots in the phenomenon of PTSD, it has been appropriated by various online communities and activists, such as widely known Melody Hensley, and has grown in scope and mutated in definition.

What it means to be “triggered” can be encapsulated by the previously referenced PTSD diagnostics.  Particularly criterions B-3 through B-5 (“dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) which may occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness,” “intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders,” “marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli,”), criterions D-4 and D-6 (“persistent negative trauma-related emotions (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame),” “feeling alienated from others (e.g., detachment or estrangement),”), and criterions E-3 and E-5 (“hypervigilance,” “problems in concentration,”).  This is the definition this article posits as the definitive meaning of what it means to be “triggered,” and is put forth in the light of the author’s own experiences above.

However, being “triggered”, in popular usage, encompasses much more.  From as far as the author can distinguish in his research, being “triggered” can range anywhere from flashbacks, to anxiety, to simply being angry or uncomfortable.  It should be obvious that this is disingenuous.  It’s frustrating that many of those popularizing the term as such are keenly aware of the appropriation and oppression of various ideas, yet proceed to appropriate and devalue the term for those with legitimate mental health concerns.  Using the term as such serves to immediately place any undesirable psychological state, however slight, on the same “level” or same import as a dissociative flashback to a traumatic event.  It posits, in this implicit comparison, that the uncomfortable is an emergency, and even is something no one should have to experience (as trauma usually is characterized in our public discourse.)  When such dilutes the consideration, the term “trigger” becomes less about an individual’s suffering, as it becomes a psycho-social construct of self-diagnosed victimization.

The idea then becomes a political stance on how we are to consider the events in our lives, and meets with equal political retaliation.  If being “triggered” in this sense is undesirable, even perhaps constituting a moral injustice, then you are reduced to being a constant victim of the negative, which ultimately places your mental health and your psychological state at the whims of the external.  The reality I posit, by the fact that the diagnostics of the DSM are the way they are, is that a healthy human being experiences positive and negative emotions on a regular basis, and often times no particularly discernible emotion at all.  We all experience rejections, disappointments, and indignation in both ourselves and the outside world, as well as acceptance, fulfillment, and triumph.  Sadness, anger, fear, and frustration are all emotions that serve to color our lives in contrast to happiness, contentedness, and even transcendence.  Cutting them out as unacceptable, putting them on the level of undeserved emergency, only short-changes yourself, your actualization, and your enjoyment of their absence.

I have identified three “levels” at which “trigger warnings” can operate.  Each, in my opinion, is increasingly less healthy and productive.  The first is what I call “appreciation”, the second being “necessity”, and the final being “abdication.”

“Appreciation” of “trigger warnings” is the level of operation at which most individuals find themselves.  The majority of people would rather not be involuntarily faced with Nazi websites, pictures of dead bodies, or disturbing stories of people’s sexual escapades, to name a few concretes.  So, in order to avoid these, they can appreciate and make use of “trigger warnings” that point these out.  At optimum, they are in complete control of their media consumption, and in essence, responsible for their own emotional responses to these subjects.

The level of “necessity” comes in to play when someone has become victim to involuntary responses to these types of stimuli.  This could be due to a traumatic event, in the case of PTSD, or other disorder of the psyche.  The individual operating at this level believes they are dependent on “trigger warnings” in order to maintain a certain level of psychological functioning.  They insist, and directly experience, that any exposure to a “trigger” does them some form of harm, and consequently purposefully avoids them.  This behavior can be considered unhealthy in the sense that it does nothing to help the individual deal with the disorder, but rather only continues a self-destructive dynamic.

The difference between “necessity” and “abdication” has to do with identity and responsibility, and comes up in regards to the social perspective of “trigger warnings.”  A person who operates at the level of “abdication” views “trigger warnings” as a psychological necessity, but believes that they are not his responsibility.  They see themselves as careful constructs awash in the tumultuous and uncontrollable seas of society, prostrate against any given disturbance, and in need of protection.  Their fragility becomes a major part of their identity and in doing so it inhibits any desire to take responsibility for their feelings in an effort towards more resilience.  Being “triggered” helps define who they are politically and socially, and even begets them rewards such as attention and sympathy.  Their condition is “not their fault” and thus is also not their responsibility.

“Abdication” is a natural occurrence of an unexamined and uncriticized trauma.  We are all capable and prone to such a psychological construct precisely because trauma is highly personal.  Trauma is a threat to your very being, your very existence.  Our reactions and memory of that threat makes up who we are, they become a permanent part of our life whether visceral or ghostly.  It is existentially unfair, and the anger present in the question, “Why me?” is very real.  These feelings should not be dismissed, and indeed can form doorways for empathy and compassion, but the process of healing cannot be done by proxy.

The science that proffers up the idea of persistent traumatic memory and a syndrome defined around it also offers, to the unfortunate dismay of many, solutions and treatments for the malady.  The two most popular of these are prolonged exposure therapy (PET), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).  Both implicitly require the acknowledgment that you are responsible for your own psychological state, no matter how distressing or how seemingly forced it is upon you.

PET encourages repetitive controlled exposure to the very “triggers” unraveling an individuals psyche.  The idea is that this continued exposure, this almost obsessive confrontation, in a sense “wears down” your reaction, or at least puts it in a separating context that can be managed.  This activity is carried out into almost “meaninglessness” levels, where the “trigger” starts to have little to no impact.  I personally had to employ this approach myself when dealing with my “triggers.”  It was extremely difficult, as for a while the “triggers” effects never receded, and I was simply making myself, and those around me, miserable for months on end.  But eventually, the merits of the approach began to appear.

ACT proposes a “self-as-context” in an effort to break down “cognitive inflexibility.”  It reminds me of cognitive behavioral therapy in a sense, as it tries to foster a detached sense of self that can notice, observe, and eventually let go of any particular experiences that confront the patient.  The idea is that you are not your thoughts, and that you are more than your memories.  Your stream of consciousness is not directly chained to your experiences, and vice-versa.  I also employed this type of thinking in a sense, as my mother instructed me to think of my obsessive thoughts as “clouds” that, given the natural order of my emotional weather, would “float away” and eventually out of view.  None of this was easy, but I personally practiced it for months, and still in some ways practice it today, to positive effect.

For those interested in pointing out the “science” behind “trigger warnings” then, they also have to acknowledge the “science” behind their implied proposed behavior of avoidance.  Cognitive avoidance, in the light of PET and ACT, is actually counter-productive as it prevents and disables any effort on the part of the individual to process their trauma.  By not “processing” the trauma, by not reaching a full experiential and psychological understanding of the issue, they only delay healing and thus prolong and intensify suffering; the flashbacks, the horror, and the anxiety.  “Trauma” in this context is easily translatable to any other negative emotion, such as anxiety, or uncomfortableness, or disturbance that the term “triggered” has come to encompass.  It really is a simple theory: by not doing anything about the issue through avoidance, you continue to suffer from and even exacerbate the issue through anticipation.

The Social Perspective

“Trigger warnings” started out then as a purely psychological phenomenon, and in this sense carry very little moral value in discourse.  However, and in my opinion unfortunately, abuse of the concept has been popularly encouraged and through an “abdicating” level of operation the term has come to include a scientifically unhealthy psycho-social construct.  This construct is what is advocated by activists.  This has allowed the term to be politicized, which has only further polarized any discussion as to their merits or disadvantages.  Criticism of “trigger warnings” then becomes political and social; attacking the identities and philosophies of the already vulnerable and suffering without moving in a “valued direction”.

When I speak of activists, I am speaking of those who demand the inclusion of “trigger warnings” in seemingly every aspect of their life.  By the very nature of demanding, these activists are automatically operating at the level of “abdication” as written above.  They are saying that their disturbances, by merely existing, are entitled, that they have a right, to have to be required consideration in public expression.  This is no where more currently evident than in American academia and on college campuses where it is being proposed that curriculum conforms to this abdication of responsibility.  This conformity is to be implemented not only in the descriptions of courses, but also in a student’s ability to be excused from aspects of a given course without any effect on grade.

Requesting “trigger warnings” isn’t the problem.  As written before, we as a society implement these warnings in many different respects when it comes to media, such as calls for viewer discretion at the beginning of television programs.  It’s the abdication of responsibility, the idea that the viewer cannot and should not have to exercise discretion, that is the problem.  It’s the conflagration of “triggering” traumatic memories with that of being psychologically uncomfortable that is the problem.

Advocates that demand “trigger warnings” are proposing a social philosophy then that falsely places the individual at the mercy of the media, at the mercy of the words of others, at the mercy of expression, and that is precisely what is being opposed.  This philosophy states unabashedly that individuals have the right to alter the free expression of others because of their own psychological disorders, and that they have the right to impose in public discourse the results of their own lack of introspection.  Ultimately, it states that the individual has a right to never feel uncomfortable.  In a rush to sensibly not offend, this has presented a threat then to freedom of expression on campus, and in the future to other social spheres that these activists inhabit.

In these realms it is no longer stating the content as the content is, which in academic implementation is the facing of reality as it is, that is most important, but what possible effect this content might have on a completely unknown population of individuals each with their own highly individualized internal conflicts and neuroses.  When this shift is made completely, reality and thus any objective understanding becomes an afterthought, composed at the whims of whomever has the loudest voice.  This is counter-productive towards the efforts of everyone involved, from victim to detached scientist.

The expectation of others to place “trigger warnings” on their activities is an automatic announcement of the relinquishment of your ability to handle your own psyche.  You are stating, in your expectations, that others are responsible for your health, and for your comfort.  It is these types of expectations that further the stereotype of entitlement often deployed towards anyone expressing anything positive about “trigger warnings.”  This is a disservice to those who suffer from PTSD and to those who are requesting these warnings in an effort to exercise fine grain control of their media consumption.  The minority determining that The Great Gatsby is “triggering”, despite the exclusion of non-professional media contact by the DSM, is an insult to those who suffer from diagnosed PTSD and publicly trivializes their concerns when it comes to finding treatment.  Announcing to others that you are “triggered” may be helpful in respects towards receiving the understanding and care such a psychological state might require from your friends, but ultimately serves to others a statement of radical self-importance and your inability to accept the experience of being a human being.

Since the 1960s the popularity of therapeutic terms and language in common parlance has soared.  We have at our disposal reams of information and books aimed at helping us diagnose ourselves with many different personality and cognitive distortions in the name of self-improvement.  The notion of achieving happiness has been democratized.  This has lead to massive efforts in both introspection, and in blaming others, for our perceived failings and conditions.  The reality is, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adult Americans is estimated to be 6.8% by the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.  It is possible to experience a traumatic event without contracting PTSD, but such an effort remains couched in self-actualization and responsibility, which is something the psycho-social construct of “trigger warnings” aims to destroy.

While “trigger warnings” themselves pose no moral value, the psycho-social construct of “trigger warning” activism has marred public discourse and only serves to divide individuals, and disparage the scientifically healthy concept of emotional responsibility.  It offers no positive value in the lives of sufferers and self-diagnosing attention seekers, and exclusively hands the minority of the disenfranchised a way to silence the majority at their irrational whim.  Because of this, I believe “trigger warnings” should be abandoned in favor of “content warnings,” many of which already existed before “trigger warnings” entered the popular consciousness.

As individuals we are responsible for our existences.  If we feel angry, uncomfortable, or sad it is our own “problem” if it is to be framed a problem at all.  This is what is wrong with “trigger warnings,” they frame the problem as out of our hands.  Although nice to have on a feed, ultimately their necessity prevents us from examining ourselves and the issues that face us in life.  Challenging ourselves, and resolving emotional issues on a personal level from a personal level is key to our own physical and mental health.  This has been scientifically shown time and again.  Life without conflict, without challenge, won’t allow any of us to grow and expand in understanding, but rather keep us as small infants incapable of expressing ourselves outside of crying.  We owe it to ourselves to strive to be larger than we already are.

This article is part of a series on Positive Individualism

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photo credit: justonlysteve no fence crossing via photopin (license)


I'm just a wunk, trying to enjoy life. I am a cofounder of http//originalpursuitssoc.com/ and I like computers, code, creativity, and friends.

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