The Real Reason We Need Trigger Warnings

“Triggers are like little psychic explosions that crash through avoidance and bring the dissociated, avoided trauma suddenly, unexpectedly, back into consciousness.” Carolyn Spring

Rolling your eyes at “trigger warnings” or “content notes” betrays not only a wilful ignorance of how trauma works, but also the privilege which such ignorance brings.  However, using “trigger warnings” ahead of an article featuring a clash of opinions, or a contentious viewpoint or which mentions something some people are not fond of, is not just a symptom of “generation snowflake”, it’s also deeply unhelpful as it manipulates the word “trigger” for its own vain narcissistic self indulgent poor me function. So now we’ve got this weird situation, online, at least, where a dissenting voice in an article can be a “trigger” for people who have not even experienced any actual trauma.

Despite this irritating and widely found misuse of the term, my bottom line is that I am in favour of them. Trigger warnings give survivors of trauma choice, control and autonomy regarding their exposure to a trigger,  all things which are generally reefed off you at the time of trauma, which is one of the reasons why being unexpectedly exposed to a trigger can be re-traumatising. So I’m going to ignore the narcissistic snowflakes and focus on actual trauma triggers here.

During the Dublin Fringe Festival I went to see the play “Coast” from Red Bear Productions.  It’s hard for me to articulate properly how outstanding this play is. Four characters experience their crises, angst, and disconnection, and are left looking at their own humanity on the edge of a beach. There are parts of us in all of them. Through their exceptionally told individual stories we leant with them into the wind, we could see the darkening grey sky above us and felt the desolation of the expansive beach, we felt their loneliness and pain and anxiety and desperation. We flailed with them, rooting for them to find a safe harbour of human connection. I cannot emphasise enough how moving this play was, and also how, in its last line, life affirming it was.

The number for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre helpline was on the program but I didn’t see it, as having had to leg it through Temple Bar to be on time, we didn’t get a chance to grab one, but I never usually pick them up anyway.

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Poster

The reason for the DRCC helpline number wasn’t a rape scene, as such. It was sensitively and heartbreakingly narrated with gentle, minor movements by the two actors. I can’t remember most of the character Gerry’s words now (Donncha O’Dea), or the perpetrator Karl’s (Gordon Quigley). Most else of what they did is forgotten now too. But I remember something being said about an arm around a neck, and I remember an arm around my neck, weight on my back, being shoved, my face scratching on carpet.  Gerry sobs with a silent scream, his shoulders heaving and I couldn’t take my eyes away. He was screaming for all of us, in his silent heaving he was doing what we have all done in private moments, expression too ugly to share, too painful to share, too private to share. This all comes and floods my whole being as I relate and over relate to the scene being played out. Images fill my mind’s eye so the actors are gone and carpet is there in their place. I feel like I am shrinking from the inside and I try to sit up straight to fight it. I feel a claustrophobia, want to flee, and I cross and uncross my legs, trapped in the back row. I turn on my phone in my bag and scroll messages trying to distract myself. At one point, in a moment of desperation, I put my hands over my ears in an attempt to block out whatever the character Gerry is saying.

I felt hijacked and I felt cheated. I was no longer witnessing it the way I had been, on the beach with the characters, forgetting where I was. Now I was alone, away, outside it, in my own experiences, my friend far away from me. I was abruptly aware of the fiction of it compared to my reality, and this was just a stage again, the stories just a creation. The spell was broken.  Afterwards I had some wine and then cried a tipsy little tear on my way home. When I was alone it was just me and the now revitalised thing, this biting isolating disconnecting thing. When will the pain end? I drunkenly wondered. When will it be a neutral thing?

This is just what happens sometimes.  Even though I have worked hard to be “over it”,  it’s still there to greater or lesser extents, because that is just part of trauma, that is just part of the package you get and have to carry and manage now. You don’t go to therapy and deal with it and it’s gone; trauma is like throwing a penny down one of those striped tube things and it spins around and around and around endlessly until reaching the bottom, but there is no bottom, the penny just keeps going around. Trauma goes around and around and around too.

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‘Coast’ by Tracy Martin. Camille Lucy Ross, Aoibheann McCann, Donncha O’Dea, Gordon Quigley. Photo: Bill Woodland

Whether trigger will actually be triggering depends on many things – my mood, who I’m with, how I’ve spent my day, how close the thing is to my own experiences, and so on. But one thing that helps is a subtle warning informing me that something which may be a trauma trigger for some, is coming. This is important as it gives trauma survivors the choice to read the article, watch the film, go to the play and so on, and if they choose to, they can organise around the exposure. For me, in this case of going to see a play, I would assess if my company is a safe person for me to witness this with. I would also reflect on what I would do immediately after being exposed to the trigger. Being alone is a bad idea, so I might plan something around that. I would also be careful of how much I drink, and how early I would get home. These are the emotional safety nets I put in place when I know something is coming. It’s not a big deal. It’s just being practical and responsible. But when I am blind sided, I have to give myself emergency emotional first aid, which is difficult when you are experiencing some of the responses I have described.  This doesn’t make me a perpetual victim, or weak, or vulnerable. It doesn’t mean I want special treatment. It doesn’t mean I want to be carried through life on a marshmallow throne. It means I’d like a calm, practical, non-hysterical heads up, so I can make my own calm, practical, non hysterical choices around it.   

Of course in everyday life it isn’t possible to be warned about everything; there is an endless amount of potential trauma triggers – smells, sounds, places, things, accents, tones of voice, witnessing an act of violence –  it’s subjective to the person who experienced the specific trauma, and we can’t control coming into contact with many of these charged things. So when and where it’s doable, why not just throw a quick warning in? When the trauma involves the absolute lack of bodily autonomy, it is vital to cultivate and harness that autonomy for the best recovery possible.

So what happens when you are trauma triggered? It is a lot more than just not liking something, or feeling mild discomfort, or being overly sensitive, as many People On The Internet seem to think. It isn’t that complicated. It consists of feelings, thoughts, or physiology that conjures up a sense of re-experiencing the original trauma.  When I am trauma triggered, I freeze, though I have experienced “fight” and “flight” as well. I feel stunned inside, raw, like my insides have just been scrubbed clean with a wiry brush. I lose the ability to articulate what I am experiencing. It is so deep inside it becomes non verbal.  I feel at risk of harm, under threat. I feel small and exposed, like my “secret” is out. Everything melts away but this experience and I have to actively tell myself to claw my way back to the present. Others report dissociation, flashbacks, difficulty breathing, anxiety attacks, intrusive thoughts and more.

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‘Coast’ by Tracy Martin. Donncha O’Dea, Gordon Quigley, Camille Lucy Ross, Aoibheann McCann. Photo: Bill Woodland

What happened in my back row seat at the play was deeply uncomfortable but it wasn’t major. I rarely experience the more intense trauma responses anymore, but it was still an experience I could have done without. And a tiny content note would have empowered me to mind myself and be ready for it. A helpline number on the program is too late, it is after the fact, after the trigger has taken hold and trauma has pummelled you to the ground. I want to know before I see something, in this case, at the booking stage, alongside notes for epilepsy sufferers and people in wheelchairs.

However, as great as the origin of the “trigger warning” was, it’s been mutated. Now they seem to be strewn randomly all over the internet, while real life gets forgotten about. 

What a trigger is not, is an opinion you don’t like. It is not a countering view. It is not someone you don’t agree with. It is not theories or criticisms that you do not subscribe to, it is not feeling briefly discontented. Trauma is serious. It is not something you get to minimise, dismiss, mock, or expand to mean feeling a bit pissed off.

This misuse makes those who throw them around appear overly sensitive and in need of being pandered to and coddled and cotton-wool-balled at all times. This is then attributed to the rest of us who understand and use trigger warnings appropriately, and we are perceived as being perma-victims in need of constant minding. We are not. We are not idiots who need infantalising. We know by opening up an article entitled “Irelands’ most notorious rapist to be released” we are going to be reading about a notorious rapist. What some of us need warnings for is the unexpected inclusion of a reminder of our trauma, like a rape scene in a film that is not part of the overall plot, or an in-depth description of abuse.

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‘Coast’ by Tracy Martin. Camille Lucy Ross, Donncha O’Dea Aoibheann McCann. Photo: Bill Woodland.

Trigger Warnings are also not a limitation on “freedom of speech”, or “censorship”. The art, or article, or whatever it is,  is not being stopped. The art is available for those who choose to go see it. Being mindful of your viewer’s agency does not take away from the art, in the same way a warning about flashing lights does not take away from the art for a sufferer of epilepsy. Art does not get to trump trauma, in the same way art does not trump epilepsy. It is not a plot reveal, it is not ruining the thing. It’s simply being as mindful of mental health as we are of physical health. Remember this the next time you roll your eyes at a “trigger warning” on an article you scroll past on Facebook. Sure, it can seem pandering and marshmallow encasing to the ignorant eye, but know that the reality is the exact opposite for survivors of trauma. I roll my eyes myself sometimes at the overkill, but if a little overkill is the price for offering survivors autonomy and choice in what happens to their minds and bodies, what I think doesn’t really matter. 

Trauma, abuse and sexual violence survivors, didn’t get choice, control, or respect at the time of the trauma. The least we could all do as part of an aspiring-to-be compassionate and fair society, is offer it to them now, when and where we can, as much in Real Life as we do online. 

That very last line of the play, which drove the scales back down in the name of life, of compassion, of hope, was “are you alright?” The disconnected finally connected, the antidote to trauma, and this is what we need to do too as we stagger bleary eyed through our lives from one catastrophe to the next, connect the disconnected, stay connected to those around us, reach for connection, and be the connection.

“Coast” is a Red Bear Production written by Tracey Martin and featured Aoibheann McCann, Camille Lucy Ross, Karl Quigley and Donncha O’Dea.