The controversy that surrounds trigger warnings

A reader I respect asked me for my thoughts on trigger warnings.

Per Wikipedia, trigger warnings are “warnings that the ensuing content contains strong writing or images which could unsettle those with mental health difficulties.”

Let’s put aside the last part of that definition, “those with mental health difficulties”, as some articles suggest that trigger warnings are not limited to those with mental health difficulties. Part of me wonders why that fragment is in there.

First, some relevant clinical information, as trigger warnings as described in popular press are commonly paired with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

DSM-5 has loosened the definition for trauma. Affected individuals do not have to directly experience the trauma (“exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways”). Parameters to describe reactions to the trauma, however, still exist. In a previous post I reviewed the other DSM-5 criteria for PTSD.

The vast majority of people who experience trauma as described in DSM-5 do not go on to develop PTSD. Yes, people may experience symptoms in the days to weeks following the event. Most people, though, incorporate the events into their lives and move on. This is a testament to human resilience.

One of the most effective treatments for PTSD and other conditions related to anxiety and fear is “exposure,” delivered in a gradual process called “systemic desensitization.” For example, if a woman was a victim of rape and has symptoms of PTSD, the therapist and woman build a hierarchy of anxiety-inducing experiences related to the rape. The least anxiety-inducing experience may be her thinking about the facts of trauma. The most anxiety-inducing experience may be her wearing the exact same clothes she wore that day, going to the location where the rape occurred, and describing, out loud, what happened. Something in the middle may be her walking past the location where the rape occurred.

The therapist helps the patient learn coping skills to recognize, acknowledge, and manage anxiety and other uncomfortable reactions. They then work through the hierarchy, from least anxiety-provoking to most anxiety-provoking, until the patient is able to meet and overcome the anxiety associated with the traumatic event.

Do note that avoiding cues associated with the trauma is not included in the descriptions above.

So, back to trigger warnings:

Different people respond to cues in different ways. Some victims of rape don’t have any visceral reactions when they hear or talk about rape. Some do. Some people only have visceral reactions if they smell something from or see certain objects associated with the traumatic event.

Who decides which triggers are worth mentioning and which are not? Does anyone have the right to tell someone else what is a trigger and what isn’t?

People have different capabilities to cope with stress. I mean no disrespect in the following sentence: Some people have never learned how to deal with themselves. They don’t know what to do when they feel angry or sad or frustrated. No one ever taught them what to do with those emotional energies. They have a skills deficit.

Thus, for some people, the best way they’ve learned to take care of themselves is to ask for trigger warnings. That strategy has worked for them and, as a consequence, they continue to use it. The feeling of empowerment is much preferable to feelings of discomfort.

For all of us: You feel the way you feel. It’s neither right nor wrong. People may tell you that you’re overreacting or “too sensitive,” but that’s about them, not about you. You feel the way that you feel.

Emotions aren’t simply reactions. Emotions give us information about the situations we’re in. They help us decide on next steps. We certainly prefer some emotions to others. All emotions, though, serve a function. Avoiding them often causes more problems.

The request for trigger warnings may not represent a need for coddling. It may reflect a need for greater validation. When we feel like no one understands where we’re coming from or what we’ve experienced, sometimes we try harder to make others listen to us with hopes that they will then understand us.

As social creatures, we build our identities in relation to others. Context matters. Perhaps the request for trigger warnings is a reaction to the limited support and acknowledgment we received when we experienced trauma. This is an opportunity to not only advocate for ourselves, but also to advocate for others who may still feel uncomfortable expressing their own distress. Feeling empowered is much preferable to feeling uncomfortable.

Do people want trigger warnings because we, as a society, are unwilling or unable to talk about the horror, helplessness, and terror that accompanies trauma?

If people can ask for trigger warnings, that means that they have voices that others can acknowledge, hear, and respond to. What about all the people in the world who don’t have a voice? And are yet unable to escape trauma? The request for trigger warnings can be noble, but does little for others who are currently experiencing and recovering from their own traumas. Not talking about something doesn’t mean it will go away.

Furthermore, the underlying assumption of trigger warnings is that people who have experienced trauma can’t handle life. Not only is this assumption wrong, it is also dangerous.

As I noted above, most people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD. For those who do develop PTSD, they can and do recover. That doesn’t mean that recovery is easy, quick, or painless. Like anything important, it takes time and energy.

Because we build our identities in relation to others, requests for trigger warnings could send the message that people who have experienced trauma will never recover. It can also suggest that people who have experienced trauma are “defective” or, as in the Wikipedia definition, have “mental health difficulties.”

To be clear, there is a role in alerting people to potentially disturbing experiences. Movie ratings do this: That “R” rated movie has violence, nudity, and drug use. This information serves a purpose for parents and viewers of films. If you find the film disturbing, you can use the energy from your own emotional reaction to write a letter of umbrage to the filmmaker, avoid similar films in the future, or tell your friends not to see the movie. However, how you react to the film doesn’t mean that everyone else will react in the same way. It also does not mean that film makers must heed your requests to provide warnings about its content.

Given that people respond to cues and deal with stress in different ways, people have unique emotional reactions to events, and avoidance is not an effective treatment for anxiety and trauma-related disorders, requests for trigger warnings are ultimately short-sighted and will not help people learn about themselves, grow, and recover.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.

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