Triggers: Not One-Size-Fits-All

On warnings, boundaries, & not being a jerk

cw: discussion of mental health symptoms, references to emotional abuse

definitions:

  • trigger: something which causes people with certain mental illnesses (notably, but not exclusively: PTSD, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders) to have an abnormal or maladaptive psychological or physiological response.
  • boundary: an individual’s rules and limits about what interactions with others they consider safe and/or reasonable.
  • [trigger/content] warning: a statement about the content of a given article, book, film, etc., designed to enable people to make decisions about whether they want to expose themselves to that content.

further defining “trigger”

My diagnosed mental conditions include PTSD and anxiety. I have trigger responses to things. These responses include:

  • adrenalin surges which induce classic “fight-or-flight” fear/anger emotional patterns. These typically last no less than half an hour, often last much longer, and have unpleasant physical consequences both during and after.
  • low-grade dissociative episodes. I will “leave the room” mentally for something from a few seconds to a few minutes, often but not always with partial awareness during or memory later, and struggle to keep my place in the conversation.
  • Classic pop-psych “flashbacks” where I near-fully dissociate and partially relive a traumatic episode. These are thankfully rare.

Other potential trigger responses which people can have include intrusive thoughts, a compulsion to self-harm emotionally or physically, true panic attacks, etc. Trigger responses are many, varied, and individual. However, they are all definitionally united by their nature as unpleasant and involuntary. They’re also symptoms of medical conditions — it’s important to understand that when people say “trigger” they don’t just mean “an upsetting thing.”

Trigger responses may also vary greatly in severity. Me blanking out in the middle of a watercooler conversation is annoying. Me spending 36 hours with too much anxiety to eat has a significant negative effect on my health and ability to work.

appropriating “trigger”

Whenever people talk about trigger warnings, people raise the ghost of that 16-year-old on tumblr or livejournal or whatever the kids are using these days who uses “trigger” to mean “an upsetting thing” and possibly yells at people for triggering them and being the worst instead of appropriately confronting their own negative feelings. I get it. That kid is super annoying, aren’t they?

And anyway it’s not just that using “trigger” to mean “an upsetting thing” is annoying. It’s also actively harmful. Linguistic drift’s a real thing — loath though I am to admit it, “literally” is now just another intensifier — and the linguistic drift caused by people misusing “trigger” has real consequences. It causes people with real, diagnosed mental illnesses to not be taken seriously when they talk about their medical needs, and in turn indirectly causes medical harm. It’s entirely reasonable to be upset by that, especially if one’s personally familiar with not having one’s triggers taken seriously.

But honestly? I have a really hard time blaming that kid.

the boundary model

I don’t like Ghostbusters jokes because I found the movie desperately unfunny. I also don’t like Ghostbusters jokes because my abusive shithead rapist ex pressured me into watching the movie with a “joke” from it that was contextually about me never saying no to him, and so sometimes when I hear them I have microflashbacks and spend ten minutes smiling and nodding in utter confusion because I no longer have any idea what’s going on around me.

Both of these are reasons to not tell Ghostbusters jokes around me. But there’s a third reason that is, if anything, more compelling: I habitually ask people not to.

Setting boundaries is not some mystic art; it’s just asking people to not do things that you feel will make you less safe. Similarly, a lot of “respecting boundaries” is merely “listening to and remembering what people have said about theirs.” I have a boundary about Ghostbusters jokes. Absent its rationale, it may seem a little ridiculous — but no matter how ridiculous you think it is, you’re still a jerk if you cross it.

The reason I don’t care about that apocryphal teenager’s misuse of “trigger” is because I think that they, and people like them, are trying to set boundaries that they think won’t be respected unless they try to make a hyperbolic deal out of them. In our society, they’re probably right — and I have a lot of empathy for their decision to enforce their boundaries in the only way they know how.

content warnings vs trigger warnings

So let’s throw “what a trigger really is” and all that jazz out the window. A request for a content warning, or a trigger warning, or whatever the requester calls it, is at heart both a request for information and an implicit statement about the requester’s boundaries.

It doesn’t matter whether someone is a rape survivor who’s triggered by discussion of rape, or if they’re merely someone who finds reading about sexual violence upsetting — if someone requests that you content-warn for it, the subtext of that request is “Sometimes I don’t want to read about this.” Giving them that information allows them to more effectively respect their own boundaries. Not giving them that information shows that you don’t respect them or their boundaries. It’s a jerk move.

I don’t expect anyone to start warning for Ghostbusters anytime soon. But many triggers and boundaries are far less specific. A lot of people have boundaries around reading about sexual violence, nonsexual violence, abuse, racial slurs, etc. (The point of this article is not a comprehensive list.) If you’re writing about something that you know a lot of people might want a warning for, and you don’t include a warning, then you’re also being a jerk.

Maybe don’t be a jerk.


Many thanks to @leeflower for helping me figure out the logic behind these views.