Exploring the Controversy: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder & Triggers

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after enduring a traumatic experience. Almost all individuals will have a traumatic experience at some point in their lifetimes, and 10% of them will develop PTSD (16% if the victim is eighteen or younger). Far from new, PTSD was formally recognized, named, and added to the DSM III in 1980. It had been understood to exist since WWI under the antiquated term “shell-shocked”.

Any event, either directly or vicariously experienced, which is threatening to life or integrity-of-self can be traumatic. Some examples of this would be: war, being injured in combat, a car crash, assault, sexual assault, mugging, natural disaster, robbery, severe illness or injury, intense drug experience, death or suicide of a friend or loved one, intense and prolonged stress, spiritual apostasy, or an existential crisis.

Unlike the antiquated notion that memories of traumas become repressed, those suffering from PTSD are constantly assailed by unwanted reoccurring thoughts of their trauma, and will often actively avoid anything associate with it. Additionally, benign things which a victim associates with their trauma can trigger not only memories and negative emotions, but also panic attacks — a sudden and acute form of crippling anxiety so intense that it is often mistaken for a heart attack.

Symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, depression, irritability, panic-attacks, flashbacks, agitation, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, nightmares, unwanted thoughts, emotional detachment, self-destructive behavior, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. These symptoms may come on immediately after the trauma, or may take days, weeks, or even months to develop. This delayed onset — as well as many other factors such as: little or no knowledge of PTSD; a misunderstanding of who can develop PTSD; little or no knowledge of psychiatric issues; fear of psychiatric treatment; stigmatization of psychiatric issues; guilt; shame over the trauma itself, especially in instances of sexual assault or abuse; fear of being seen as or thinking oneself as weak — all contribute to both a failure to identify PTSD by the victim and those around them, and in receiving treatment.

A lack of understanding of PTSD by the general public can lead to further stigmatization of the victim. Their seemingly unreasonable antisocial behavior and excessive sensitivity can lead to social ostracizing and victim blaming. This, especially when the victims themselves don’t understand what’s happening to them, can lead to intense distress and greatly worsen their condition. This can lead to more self-destructive behavior like dangerous drug abuse, self-harm, or even suicide.

The trivialization and mocking of triggers in popular culture has undoubtedly harmed and served to further isolated trauma victims, who are painted as sheltered and delicate individuals who want to curtail free-speech to protect themselves from ideas they don’t like. This conflation of free-speech issues with trigger-warnings is, however, largely erroneous. Far from desiring to use PTSD to garner special treatment, those suffering want nothing more than to be cured and move on with their lives. Anyone who has suffered through a panic attack understands why someone would welcome any attempt to prevent them from occurring, and this is why trigger-warnings were created.

Trigger-warnings — which are a list of the content in a piece of media commonly understood be a likely trigger of a panic attack in someone with PTSD — have appeared in their current incarnation since the late 1990’s. Those these warnings are often painted by bad-actors as excessive coddling, similar warnings have existed unopposed in the public sphere for longer, such as explicit content labels on music albums and movie ratings. These warnings are both informative and non-invasive, and thus opposition to them is clearly unreasonable.

Some critics of addressing triggers in an academic setting say that we should not be curtailing content to accommodate those suffering from PTSD, and instead those individuals should simply seek treatment. I agree with these two points, however, it’s important to understand that the real intent of such statements are to deflect any responsibility for making reasonable accommodations to trauma victims, not to help anyone. The speakers want all the responsibility place on the victim of PTSD, and this shows how inhumane and lacking in empathy they are. Schools and colleges need to work alongside mental health professionals to determine what the most beneficial approach to helping students suffering from PTSD get the help they need and to succeed academically.

Just telling someone to seek treatment is easy to do, but ignores the large number of obstacles involved in achieving it. These include some that I covered earlier — such as not knowing you’re suffering from PTSD; the stigma of weakness and being perceived as “crazy”; and being too ashamed to seek treatment — as well as issues of cost of treatment, lack of medical insurance, and low availability of psychiatrists and psychologists. Add to that the new hyper-inflated stigma of emotional fragility that is now being attached to those who can be triggered. The mocking and condescending phrase “Are you triggered, snowflake?” is omnipresent, so even if all the traditional obstacles to treatment can be overcome, we have introduced new ones. Finally, what perhaps this critique misses the most is that even those undergoing treatment and on medication can still be triggered while they recover, thus these objections, which may have ostensibly been reasonable, are revealed for the disingenuous victim-blaming that they really are.

Instead of adding to the obstacles of receiving treatment, the stigmas surrounding psychiatric issues, and suffering in general, we need to educate ourselves and be empathetic to the suffering and struggles of others. As 50% of individuals will experience a mental illness lifetime, it is almost a certainty that you or someone you love will be affected. It goes without saying that you wouldn’t want you or your spouse or you parent or you child or a close friend or sibling to be treated with scorn and derision and driven from treatment while they suffer. Empathy and treatment can mean the difference between recovery and death, so help foster an environment where you, the people you love, and the people others love are enabled to overcome their mental illness and live full, happy, meaningful lives.

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