*Trigger Warning: some of the content of this article may be triggering to some. PTSD, trauma, abuse, and assault are mentioned in the following article.
Today is Independence Day in the good ole US of A. That means fireworks, big ones, going off all night for at least 3 days before the 4th and at least 3 days after. You may be asking yourself, “What does that have to do with trigger warnings?” Well, if you live in the states, chances are that you’ve seen a sign like this, whether on social media or in person:
These signs are designed to let people in the neighborhood know that a Veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) lives there and that the loud sounds and flashes from the fireworks could trigger their PTSD. It’s essentially a reverse trigger warning. I love seeing people share this image and remind others to be mindful of the mental health of those around them, but I find it interesting that many of the people sharing images like this one are the same people who make fun of trigger warnings used in articles, posts, images, etc.
Perhaps interesting isn’t the right word there…frustrating, that seems more accurate. I have seen many people rant about how sensitive everyone is nowadays that there have to be trigger warnings on everything. People who need or use trigger warnings are called “snowflakes” and told that we’re basically just a bunch of big babies. I think a lot of this comes from a misunderstanding of what trigger warnings really are and what purpose they serve.
I have PTSD from prolonged childhood trauma as well assault. I also have an over-reactive sympathetic nervous system which can cause adrenaline surges from even just small amounts of stimulation. I need trigger warnings.
Trigger warnings are like yield signs for people with PTSD. They tell me, “hey, this could potentially trigger your past trauma and cause you to spiral out into anxiety and depression.” It gives me the option to weigh the risks and benefits of a tv show, movie, activity, book, post, etc. I need trigger warnings if a video is going to be really loud, bright, or include jump scares, because those will set of my sympathetic nervous system. Having them helps me feel more secure and in control. Without them, the world, especially the internet, becomes a much scarier place.
Some of the misunderstanding about trigger warnings stems from not understanding what it means to be triggered. Many people seem to have the impression that being triggered means that you are unhappy or made slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps there are some people who use trigger warnings in that way, but that is not their intention.
Being triggered means that something has aggravated my PTSD which leaves me with feeling as if the trauma is happening all over again right then and there. It’s not being overly dramatic, it’s brain chemistry. My mind and body remember what that trauma felt like and react as if the trauma is happening all over again. It can take hours, days, or weeks even to recover from one triggering episode.
It’s also not something that I have any power over. I do not get to choose what is triggering to me and what isn’t. While I was unhappy with the latest presidential election results, I didn’t expect that it would trigger my PTSD. I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes right about now, but I’m using that point to illustrate how we don’t get to choose what triggers us. And no, I’m not suggesting that there should be a giant trigger warning placed before all election results. As a survivor of assault, when a man who bragged openly about sexual assault was elected president, I suddenly felt as if I was being assaulted all over again. It hit me out of no where. I felt as though I had just been punched in the gut. I couldn’t stop crying and felt unsafe everywhere I went. Luckily, I have an amazing therapist who was able to get me in and help me to process the trauma to end the attack. While I am still unhappy about the election results, I no longer feel that I am experiencing my trauma over and over again.
This is a pretty important distinction to understand, being triggered doesn’t mean upset, it means that you are thrown right back into your original trauma and feel as if it is happening all over again. PTSD doesn’t care about logic and it doesn’t care about intentions. Someone telling me, “I didn’t mean it like that, you just need to get over it,” doesn’t stop me from reliving the trauma. Someone saying, “but it’s not really happening again, you’re safe, so why does it bother you,” will also have zero affect on my PTSD. I have many methods to try to cope with an attack, including grounding myself, but I can’t logic my way out of them.
Let me make this clear: You don’t have to understand why something is triggering to me for it to be triggering.
Many people who scoff at trigger warnings don’t hesitate to jump all over someone who says that they’ve been triggered. Comments such as, “you’re an idiot if that bothers you,” or “well, I would be triggered by the opposite thing,” or “you need to lighten up,” are unhelpful and, again, won’t change the fact that I’ve been triggered. People tend to get really offended at being told that something they’ve posted could be triggering and might need a trigger warning. We’re not saying that to try to police everyone, but to help people understand the impact they could have on someone’s mental health.
So, yes, trigger warnings matter. They matter to my mental health and well-being. I understand that the world will never be trigger proof and that it’s not your job to make sure I feel safe wherever I go. However, if doing something as simple as adding a warning to a possibly triggering post could help make someone’s life easier, why wouldn’t you want to do it? Just like how you share those posts about combat veterans and fireworks, consider how posting a video of a person being beaten and abused without a trigger warning can be just as harmful. Compassion and empathy towards your fellow man will go far.
Have thoughts on trigger warnings? Leave me a comment and let me know!
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