Why I Am A Convert To The Idea Of "Trigger Warnings"

Fear
Fear

Trigger warnings really only became part of the cultural conversation fairly recently, and they have been the subject of debate.  A trigger warning is a written note that a topic may elicit a painful reaction in a population with a trauma history.  For example, a professor might write "trigger warning: explicit discussion of child abuse" on a syllabus before an essay about a parenting beating his child, because students with a trauma history may feel "triggered" (aka have a PTSD reaction, like a flashback, depression, panic, etc) by reading it.

Originally, I felt that since the exposure therapy is known to facilitate the recovery from trauma, trigger warnings could impede people naturally recovering from their trauma.  Exposure therapy is the titrated "exposure" to situations or even thoughts that bring up an anxious/panicked/trauma reaction.  For example, when working with a person who was bitten by a dog and now fears dogs, first we would get comfortable merely with discussing dogs, then with seeing pictures of dogs, then with seeing videos of dogs, then seeing dogs far away, then closer, then eventually seeing and even petting a dog in the office.

Whatever stage of exposure we were at, it is essential for the person to learn to "sit with" their anxiety until it peaks and decreases.  Anxiety (and all emotions) is shaped like a bell curve, and it peaks and decreases in a relatively short amount of time.  People don't usually get to experience the decrease, though, because they escape from the feared situation at or before the peak.  So, when a therapist (or a well meaning spouse or friend) says that eventually they will get used to the fear or the stressor and be able to cope with it, the person doesn't believe them.

For example, a combat vet who has flashbacks when walking into a crowded place, like a mall, doesn't believe that if he just waited long enough, he would get used to being in the mall and his anxiety would decrease, at least to a tolerable degree.  This is because he usually goes back out to his car and drives away when the anxiety peaks, not knowing that it will decrease.  (This mall thing is common in combat vets with PTSD; there are hordes of people and the vet cannot see what they are all doing, and in combat, this signals danger.)  Eventually, working with a therapist, the vet can wait out the peak of his anxiety in the mall, using grounding techniques to assure himself that he is in the here and now versus back in combat, and then he is able to have that mastery experience and confront even more of his feared stimuli.

The point is that exposure is gradual, titrated, and done with the help of a trained professional.  Of course, there is no way to shield a student or a reader from any mention of abuse or whatever their triggering issue is.  But I see no reason not to help someone understand that something difficult is coming up in the reading (or observing pictures or videos) that may lead to a trauma reaction.  Then, the person has options.  They can make sure that a trusted friend is around to give them support after the assignment is done.  They can schedule when they read it so that their therapist appointment is later that day.  They can decide that the course is not for them until they can work through their trauma in therapy. They can read after a good night's sleep and earlier in the day versus when they are feeling depressed late at night and on the verge of deciding whether to binge drink or cut, which is far likelier in the event that they feel triggered.

I have written about people with sexual abuse histories, and the importance of a partner understanding how past sexual abuse may impact functioning in intimate relationships.  It is obvious that sexual, physical, emotional abuse, or any exposure to trauma, tremendously affects many people, especially Highly Sensitive People, or people who already struggle with emotional issues.  Yes, people are resilient, but there is a spectrum of resilience, and what works for one person to get past a trauma may not work for another (read more on that here).  One person may be able to "power through" their past trauma, although, honestly, this trauma often comes up in other ways for these people, like addiction (including workaholism), fear of intimacy, and anger issues.  Another person may have more immediate and disabling reactions in real time.  Neither way is "better," and many more individuals with a trauma history could benefit from counseling than actually end up going.

Yes, people survived before trigger warnings, but society used to be very different.  For instance, parents with unresolved trauma could and did try to escape their pain subconsciously via behaviors like drinking, withdrawing from their kids, or even hitting their kids, and nobody said anything about it, unless those behaviors became public and flagrantly dysfunctional.  Today, the ideals for parenting are a lot different.  Although I don't think "helicopter parenting" is healthy, I do believe it is a positive that parents are supposed to be more emotionally present and it is no longer okay (or ignored by society) to drink or hit due to feelings of stress that are unable to be tolerated.

We are moving toward a more emotionally aware society, which has many positives.  Exposure therapy is different than random unpredictable exposure, which can be destabilizing. Trigger warnings allow some of our more sensitive or struggling members of society (who are often intelligent, artistic, and empathic people) to function better.  If one person is stopped from engaging in a destructive behavior by a trigger warning that takes two second to write, then I believe that trigger warnings are net positive for society.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Many People Use Book Blurbs As Default Trigger Warnings Anyway.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.