There has been significant controversy over the validity of triggers and the use of trigger-warnings. One side believes acknowledging triggers and using trigger-warnings is necessary to address and mitigate the suffering of an often stigmatized and vulnerable gamut of society. The other side believes triggers are overreactions by a coddled generation, and that trigger-warnings are yet another attempt to stifle freedom of speech and shield the weak from ideas they find objectionable. Both sides claim the other’s actions are detrimental to society as a whole. With such diametrically opposed stances, and purported harms of this magnitude, it is important for us to examine and understand this issue, and what needs to be done to address it.
In any discussion it is vital to clearly established agreed upon terminology. Often times this is all it takes to clear up confusion and resolve conflicts between entrenched opponents.
Trigger (n): Any stimuli directly or indirectly related to a trauma which causes intense distress, anxiety, panic attacks, and/or other psychological and physiological signs of intense stress in someone suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Triggered (v): Experiencing intense distress, anxiety, panic attacks, and/or other psychological and physiological signs of intense stress after being exposed to a trigger.
Trigger-warning (n): A warning preceding an experience or piece of media which describes what triggers may be present, similar to movie and video-game ratings.
PTSD: A mental health disorder that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.
Panic-Attack: An abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, often said to feel like a heart-attack and/or dying.
Now that we’ve established definitions of our key terms, let’s examine the argument against belief in the seriousness of triggers and the necessity of trigger-warnings. This argument can be reasonably summed up in: “People who say they are triggered are just unreasonably sensitive. They need to toughen up and deal with it.”
The first part of this argument — “People who say they are triggered are just unreasonably sensitive.” — has some root in truth. The phrase “I’m depressed” in addition to referring to the psychological disorder, is used colloquially to hyperbolically refer to any mild sadness. Likewise, the phrase “I’m triggered” has been used both literally and hyperbolically. Much of the debate over this politicized term that many are unfamiliar with has occurred on the internet, a space prone to miscommunication, and the result has been a lot of misunderstanding. It’s easy to envision the scenario where an observer hears a proponent of being empathetic to those who are triggered advocating the use of trigger-warnings to prevent significant psychological harm; then that same observer, who is not familiar with any of the subject matter, hears another person say they’ve been triggered when what they really meant was something happened that caused them mild stress and/or anxiety. This observer could then reasonably conclude that the seriousness of triggers and import of trigger-warnings is being greatly overblown.
Working with this premise, the observer can easily end up more entrenched in this stance. It’s easy to envision a subsequent experience where the observer voices their premise and is met with harsh rebukes from strangers who attack our observer personally, accusing them of being a bad person, all while mistakenly assuming this observer fully understands the subject matter. Anyone in this situation is likely to react angrily and defensively. Emotions flair, more assumptions are made as well as generalizations and outright dismissal and condemnations. The wedge between the groups grows wider and individuals on both side become more bitter.
Another easily envisioned scenario is one where the observer witnesses a reaction to a legitimate trigger for someone. Often times these triggers are completely innocuous since any stimulus can be a trigger. The very extreme reaction to a mild, neutral, or even commonly thought of as positive stimulus can be very confusing, even comical in its absurdity. This observer, not familiar with how PTSD and triggers function, could then easily think the person is overly emotional, excessively sensitive, or outright “crazy”. This understandable and unintentional trivializing of the incident easily leads to dismissive and/or stigmatizing opinions.
The second part of the argument —“They need to toughen up and deal with it.” — has multiple origins. The first is simple to understand, it’s derived from the misunderstanding of terms as previously illustrated. If you’re experiences and understanding of triggers has led you to believe their importance is largely overblown and unreasonable, then this is a reasonable conclusion to reach.
The second origin is more complex. It comes from the stigmatization of psychiatric issues and emasculation from weakness. The mind and body are often viewed as separate entities. Issues affecting the mind are seen as the result of a weak character, not a physical ailment, even though that is often the case. Thus the same person who would rush their child to the ER for a broken leg, might leave depression entirely untreated, or even chastise their child for not being strong enough to get over it. Other compounding factors are that psychiatric treatment can be expensive, it’s often poorly covered or not covered at all by insurance, and involves what is often seen as strange or illegitimate treatment practices.
The stigmatization of psychiatric issues extends beyond being seen as a weakness of character. Psychiatric issues are often categorized under the sweeping generalization umbrella of “being crazy”, a label which is conflated with both serial killers and disturbing homeless. Shame is also common in those suffering psychiatric issues, either as a result of their trauma or due to their inability to understand why they’re depressed when their life is so good. These and many other issues surrounding psychiatric issues, their perception, and their treatment make it hard for anyone to admit they are having a problem, assuming they’re even able to recognize that they might have a psychiatric issue, let alone seek treatment.
Many also don’t understand the serious nature of neglecting those suffering from PTSD. Crippling anxiety and depression leading to lost friends, jobs, or more; self-harm including cutting, eating disorders, self-mutilation, dangerous risk taking, and drug addiction; or even suicide are possible outcomes. The likelihood of poor outcomes only increases when victims are attacked, harassed, or have their suffering trivialized or dismissed entirely.
An often overlooked culprit which exacerbates miscommunication and animosity between sides in an ongoing contentious debate such as this is the fact that people enter the fray at all different levels of experience with the topic. A common scenario is one where someone who’s been involved in this debate for years or decades might encounter someone from whom this is their first experience with the topic. The result can be that they’re swayed by carefully crafted, yet erroneous arguments; or they might be treated with a lack of patience, mistrust, and animosity that isn’t commensurate with any of their actions. It’s easy to ask that the latter person approach every encounter with patience and understanding, but the reality is it’s often a lot to ask of someone who may themselves be exhausted, frustrated, and hurt. The result is a significant amount of polarization over a short period of time, and very extreme reactions on all sides.
This intellectual battleground can also turn very ugly. Trolls and bullying can become rampant. Our observer might turn bitter after feeling unjustly attacked and seek vindication or petty reprisal. They may also be encouraged by others who have been there a long time doing the same. Less innocent people are also likely to enter the fray. Trolls, bullies, sadist, and misogynists are quick to jump on the perception of weakness, the vulnerable, and any opportunity to attack women. Often these malicious individuals will appropriate the experience of those unjustly attacked to disingenuously justify their hateful actions.
The vast majority of people are good, caring, and reasonable individuals. If everyone involved is willing to educate themselves on the topics, have the patience to understand other people’s struggles, and treat people with respect, we will find common ground and understanding. There will always be outliers, and those with ulterior motives, but we can’t afford to let them taint our experience and ability to come together and compassionately address these difficult issues. We owe it to ourselves, those who are suffering, and those we love.