[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]
These are some ways I have mentally responded to encountering a trigger warning/content note on the internet:
- [ignores, continues reading]
- “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
- “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
- “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
- “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
- “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
- “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
- “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”
I’ve been hearing a lot about how trigger warnings are nothing but a way for trauma survivors to “avoid challenging material.” I present this list in order to show some more typical ways that people use trigger warnings, such as mentally preparing themselves for the material, choosing the best time to engage with it, and setting up self-care practices that will help.
As you see from #8, yes, sometimes people choose not to engage with triggering material at all. In that latter (and not extremely common) case, it’s useful to remember that people who are triggered by something are usually triggered by it because they have lived it. I’ve sat through many classroom discussions about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, sexism, and other things that I have lived through, and while I occasionally did learn from these discussions, more often I learned little or nothing, because I have lived through it. And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, which is why it can be useful for survivors of trauma to share their experiences with fellow survivors and learn from each other. But that’s usually not what the classroom space is.
I’m also a bit fed up, to be honest, with this deceptive word “challenging.” What is a challenge? Here are some things that I find challenging:
- applied math problems
- recipes that involve very precise timing
- coping with depression
- keeping my apartment clean when I’m very fatigued all the time
- wrapping my head around dense and difficult literature or philosophy
- persuading myself to make the effort to go out and see friends even when I’m wiped out from work, because I know that it’ll be good for me
- sitting through a very boring class or meeting
- saying goodbye to people I love after a visit
- shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod
- telling someone that I love them
- addressing situations where I feel like someone is communicating passive-aggressively and we need to get things out into the open and talk about them
- dentist appointments
- arguing with someone who thinks that rape victims ever deserve what happened to them
- climbing up four sets of stairs while carrying several bags of groceries
- figuring out how to properly manage my enormous student debt
- relationships where I feel like I’m more invested in the person than they are in me
You might notice that many of the things on this list seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other because “challenging” is a very ambiguous word!
There are intellectual challenges, like solving a difficult math problem or understanding a difficult text. There are interpersonal challenges, like figuring out the right way to address a conflict with a partner. There are physical challenges, like climbing a lot of stairs while carrying a heavy load. There are emotional challenges, like coping with depression or with dentist appointments. Some challenges involve combinations of these things. For instance, shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod involves an intellectual challenge (knowing what all those manual settings on the DSLR mean and how to set them) and a physical challenge (holding the camera as still as possible). Telling someone that they have hurt my feelings involves an interpersonal challenge (figuring out the right way to say what I need to say in a way that’ll be effective) and an emotional challenge (dealing with my hurt feelings as I do this).
When people condescendingly claim that college students who ask for trigger warnings are trying to “avoid challenging material,” they are–perhaps intentionally–conflating two meanings of the word “challenging.” Triggering material is emotionally challenging. The challenge is that you feel like you’re about to start screaming and crying in front of your classmates and professor. The challenge is that suddenly you’re back in that bar or that dorm room or wherever it happened, and you’re trying to get away but you can’t get away and you’re trying to scream but nothing comes out. The challenge is that suddenly you’re floating somewhere high above the classroom looking down at yourself sitting there unable to move. The challenge is that you forget who or where you are. The challenge is that your brain starts to empty out like a glass with a crack in it, and no matter what you do you just can’t fill it up again and they’re all looking at you because the professor asked you a question and you have no idea what any of those words meant or how to even make words.
Do we really go to college to encounter this type of “challenge”? No, college coursework is intellectually challenging. The challenge is understanding the nuances of complicated arguments or literary devices. The challenge is connecting ideas together in a way that flows and makes sense, finding patterns in the texts, defending your opinions using evidence from the book. The challenge is being willing to entertain an argument that you personally disagree with, to examine it from all sides. Sometimes, the challenge is memorizing facts, though that’s not so common in college. Sometimes the challenge is writing code that works, or designing a study that effectively examines a particular research question.
You know who would be pretty bad at those types of challenges? Someone who, in their mind, is currently stuck reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.
Yes, those who insist that trigger warnings are no substitute for professional mental healthcare and that it’s not a professor’s job to heal their student’s personal trauma are absolutely correct. Trigger warnings will not heal trauma. However, they will also not “prevent people from healing” or whatever’s getting thrown out as the latest justification for not using them. What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them. Only sometimes will they cause people to choose not to engage at all, and remember, the absence of the trigger warning wouldn’t have made them engage with it anyway. It would’ve made them try, get triggered, and fail to engage. It’s such a creepy “Gotcha!” sort of thing to insist on tricking people into trying to engage with triggering content by not including a trigger warning when they asked for one.
In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma–the ones that get triggered by things–are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare “instead” of asking for trigger warnings. Engaging with triggering content in a thoughtful, intentional, and controlled way is often part of someone’s healing process and has been recommended by plenty of mental healthcare professionals.
Trauma survivors know best what they need. They don’t know perfectly, but they know better than someone with no experience or knowledge of that trauma. If you don’t want to use trigger warnings, then don’t, and say so. But don’t cloak that unwillingness in a patronizing concern for the survivor’s well-being. We see past that stuff. You’re not the ultimate authority on what we need and what’s best for us. Just say it’s too much of an inconvenience for you and you won’t do it.