…Or Not to Trigger

As an English major, I am constantly bombed with the ever-so-classic debate on trigger warnings. In a fresh class, the teacher mentions the word and everyone sighs and moans, prepares their arguments or slinks into their chair. Everyone knows they’re about to witness an unresolvable feud. It’s fucking exhausting. As an English major myself, I feel very passionately about this topic so I try to speak up before my anxiety makes my heart quake. As someone who doesn’t require a warning myself anymore, I still ask they be implemented in the academic environment and here’s why:

When I was younger I watched a scary movie that left me scarred. I was horrified by violence, loss of self-control and human capability. That fear of losing control of my body, i.e. anxiety, haunted me in movies, scary stories, and the six ‘o’clock news. I was drowning in myself, felt I had no control over what was happening. I thought I was going insane. I had triggers for this feeling. I avoided these triggers and this stunted my healing. But, for the time being, it helped me get through life with fewer anxiety attacks. Less anxiety attacks=better Bridget! 

Naysayers will roll their eyes; people with mental health experience will scream at me, saying avoidance is not healthy. People will try to tell me what was best for me. Did it get me over my fears right away? No. Did I really ever get over my fears? No. I learned to deal with it eventually. But I did so when I finally found the proper resources I needed.

I worked those triggers out in therapy. I might never have worked them out otherwise because my anxiety was so convoluted from its beginning stages as a young child. Nowadays, I rarely have any triggers. But I still ask for trigger warnings in creative settings out of respect for those I can empathize with, others who may not have the resources, the funds, the friends and the family or the general awareness that everything is going to be okay.

Trigger warnings are an accommodation for those with certain hidden fears and traumas that will never be fixed in a classroom. These people generally are those who have extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression. To believe a classmate should “get over it” as I’ve heard in many times is a huge overlook and insult to an individuals mental well-being. Disregarding trigger warnings is a privilege for those who have either never experienced mental health issues or have experienced these issues but learned how to cope with them, thus expecting others to force that healing on themselves in ways they do not know how.

We need to understand that people struggling with mental health issues are at a disadvantage. An academic setting is difficult enough as it is. To add on anxiety, depression and PTSD makes it even harder. In a survey the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that 41.6% of students experience anxiety and 36.4% experience depression. These are significant numbers. That’s a lot of people being expected to wave their personal issues away for academia. 

After the University of Chicago declared in a welcome letter that it did not condone trigger warnings, Lindsay Holmes wrote in “A Quick Lesson on What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” that “a desire to be warned about potential triggers has nothing to do with people not wanting to ‘challenge’ themselves academically.” This is a challenge to “discomfort” oneself. The dialogue around this debate emphasizes the word “discomfort,” equating mental health exposure in the classroom as a challenge grow as a person. But that is not what the classroom is for—that feeling of panic, of fear, of sadness is far beyond discomfort. It is harrowing and traumatic.

People are expectant of others to challenge themselves, when in reality that should only happen with a professional.  Holmes states, “while many modes of treatment for mental health issues encourage patients to face their traumas instead of avoiding them, classrooms are not therapist’s offices and professors aren’t mental health professionals. This kind of work requires a controlled and private environment outlined by the practicing clinician.” Overall, the classroom is not an appropriate place for a professor to call themselves their students therapist. I’m not paying for that. My $250 per class is not my copay. 

We never know another persons situation, we don’t know what we’re providing when we implement trigger warnings. But they are there for a reason. Holmes continues: “trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence. Eliminating these advisories and zones on campus suggests that someone should have to listen to someone who questions their humanity or experience.” 

In debating the use of trigger warnings and the overall depiction of mental health  in 13 Reasons Why, a classmate said they have been depressed once in their life but considered Hannah’s suicide scene in the bathtub fine. I on the other hand did not. The portrayal itself was horrific, and to do so without a trigger warning was dangerous. For my classmate to universalize her mental health journey was unfair. The problem with her argument is that she generalized everyones journeys and expected everyone else to be as fine as she was. I went into the show knowing full well from others what would happen, but when the scene played I wish I never saw it. It brought up my past depression and self-harm. A show like this would have been dangerous for me many years ago. Having been in a more positive time in my life, it didn’t trigger me to self-harm again. But knowing my past self, the fragile and damaged self from years ago, I know I would have jumped on it.  I could see it happening, my friends could see it happening, someone far off mimicking Hannah’s suicide. And it did happen!

The definition of trigger warnings is wholly misconstrued, thus leading to exhausting debates. In debating the use of trigger warnings in my advanced fiction writing class, my professor was unprofessionally biased on the matter. She fully believed trigger warnings to be useless and considered them acts of censorship. Other classmates felt the same way as our professor, heatedly saying they feel like they’re being inhibited creatively. I answered those evading ears to say trigger warnings are not telling us we can’t write what we intend to. We can write whatever the hell we want. They simply ask for the favor of warning those with certain personal traumas that something may be ahead. Trigger warnings look like this:

Example: TW: Sexual assault.

Example: TW: Domestic violence, self-harm.

They’re like a sharp turn sign you see in the dark, something to better prepare you so you’re not taken off guard. They’re not road blocks telling us we can’t go around the bend. In the end, they help people go on with their day.

The professor had us read Roxane Gay’s “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” which was the professor’s horrible attempt at swaying the class in her particular direction on the topic. In the article, Gay criticizes the use of trigger warnings. She states, “members of these communities are given the illusion they can be protected,” and that “life, apparently, requires a trigger warning.” This is a misconception I see around every debate. Asking for a trigger warning in a classroom is not asking for a trigger warning everywhere. Like Holmes states, we are not in the classroom for therapy.

In the debate, someone said that his friend was triggered by cars. He asked, “So am I just not allowed to write cars in my piece?” This was an interesting question, one that I initially rolled my eyes at, feeling angry a trauma like rape or assault or self-harm or eating disorder -the ones generally applied to trigger warnings- could be equated with a “car.” But then I thought I don’t have the right to minimize someone’s trauma. If I delegitimize one, I do to all. I looked at this from every angle and came up with the conclusion that there are the big ones, rape, assault, sexual assault, self-harm, things that at least should be recognized as universally traumatizing to most. These are the ones that shouldn’t even be debated. I’m still considering other traumas. They could be brought up to professors personally, but that puts one in an awkward position to speak with an almost stranger about personal issues. I’m still stuck on it.

My biased professor ended our debate saying, “This whole debate is triggering to me,” assumably not in the same way as me. She was exasperated that we as writers would even consider them. She would establish a trigger free classroom from the start, thus unfortunately ending the debate without a consensus.

In conclusion…

Exposure therapy? Yes! Can we go through life avoiding everything that makes us uncomfortable? No! Exposure therapy is hella effective. But do I need that forced on me by others? Noooo. Give me a little warning. Personally, I’ll give it a try. But give me the choice. I think we’re in a general state of mind as a society that choice is a right.

Personally, I don’t need many trigger warnings nowadays. I know that’s counterintuitive to this piece but that’s just where I am in my state of mind. Like I said, years ago I would have needed them for those violent short stories or the graphic television shows catered to young audiences. I’ve worked through my shit, but not everyone has yet. We must remember that TWs are for people that are potentially far beyond the resolution of their mental well-being. Let’s give them their time to heal. Let’s not push them over the edge when they’re not ready to jump. I agree if we’re convinced something will hurt us, it will hurt us. But what if we’ve already been hurt? Trigger warnings could possibly save someone from further discomfort.

We cannot hide from our problems; we cannot expect to heal by avoiding the passage of writing that deals with rape or watch that violent movie. Exposure therapy is fucking effective, but can we really call ourselves allies if we force this down people’s throats? To expect that of someone to do so in a classroom full of thirty-plus semi-strangers is self-righteous and uncalled for. Yes I payed for that yoga class, but I didn’t sign myself up to doing headstands. There are always moderations. We all go at our own pace, the pace we make for ourselves. No one else can set that for us. No one has the right to tell us to stretch further, to get over it.

To ignore so is disrespectful. By disregarding trigger warnings we continue to put mental health on the back shelf, further stigmatizing and worsening it. When we fail to recognize others’ sadness, anxieties and traumas, we only hurt ourselves.