What Are Trigger Warnings?
In the last few years, the term “trigger warning” has become more common in internet posts. It is often used to warn readers of sensitive or graphic content, such as sexual assault or suicide, so that they can make informed decisions about reading further.
Some people, however, critique those who provide, and those who benefit from, trigger warnings, painting them as fragile “snowflakes,” too sensitive to handle the world’s harsh realities. They claim that such warnings coddle younger generations, allowing them to avoid tough topics because they’re too upsetting.
Aside from the question of whether or not these warnings are helpful, a topic of recent research, these critiques reflect a lack of understanding about what it means to be triggered, in the context of trauma and PTSD.
What is a Trauma Trigger?
When we experience a traumatic event, our brains activate the more primal parts of our nervous system. This initiates our “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions, heightening our senses to help us survive; heart rate and breath quicken, the stomach clenches, and the body shakes. This animalistic, emotional part of the brain overrules other brain processes in favor of survival. We stop processing information and storing it in our brains as linear memory. Rational thought halts as the body readies for action.
When we are truly in danger, the brain’s focus on action rather than thought increases our chance of survival. However, when the brain responds like this in the absence of danger, it can be very debilitating.
Without our brain’s ability to assign a sense of time – past, present, and future – to a traumatic event, trauma survivors often feel as though it is still occurring in the present. This happens when our brain registers a sight, sound, smell, taste, or sensation that is reminiscent of the distressing event.
Responses to Triggers
Our reactions to triggers are diverse. You may experience sensations in your body, such as a racing heart, rapid breathing, cold sweats, tension, or pain. You may feel strong emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, numbness, or feeling out of control. Being triggered may primarily show up in how you behave; you might isolate yourself from others, become argumentative, shut down emotionally, or become physically aggressive. You may even experience dissociation or suicidal thoughts. As you can tell, triggers can have very real and serious consequences.
Sometimes, you may be able to identify what it was that caused you to have this reaction, but often people who encounter a trigger do not recognize what it was that set them off. It can feel like it comes out of the blue. This is very normal. It can frustrate many people to feel an intense emotion or a symptom in their body that they can’t explain. They may know logically that they are behaving in a way that isn’t healthy or productive, but they feel compelled to act that way regardless. These too are normal feelings.
What are Trauma Triggers Not?
Trigger vs. Flashback
It is important to note that being triggered is not the same as having a flashback, although they are similar and related. A flashback is another way the brain responds to reminders of a traumatic experience in which a person will feel as though the experience is happening right now. A common example is that of a soldier in the civilian world who hears a helicopter fly overhead and feels as though he is back in a warzone. He may flee or duck under cover, because his brain tells him he’s in imminent danger.
In the example above, the helicopter flying overhead serves as the trigger that initiates the flashback. Triggers warn the brain we’re not safe. Flashbacks tell the brain to react to the danger.
Triggered vs. Uncomfortable
Triggers also aren’t “excuses” that trauma survivors exaggerate to avoid challenging material. It is normal in the course of everyday life to feel upset or distressed. Sometimes these feelings can be strong, and uncomfortable, but they retain their connections to present time and space. Traumatic feelings are different. They are terrifying, overwhelming, disabling, and lack a connection to present time and space. Experiencing a trauma trigger is not just being upset by disturbing content. It’s a response wired into our brain by a past event, causing thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and behaviors that often feel automatic and out of one’s control.
Trigger warnings can help trauma survivors maintain a sense of safety. For example, someone who lived through Hurricane Katrina might attend a movie about natural disasters with loved ones. They may sit on the aisle near the exit so they have an escape route if they become too upset. Or, they may avoid the screening altogether to avoid being triggered. Trigger warnings enable trauma survivors to feel some sense of control for their own wellbeing; something that should be applauded, not mocked or belittled.
The good news is that there are many ways to address trauma triggers, heal their underlying cause, diminish those reactions and rewire the brain to function in healthier ways.
Trauma therapists are trained to help people heal from trauma and reduce the associated symptoms that affect day-to-day functioning. It’s important to ask any potential therapist about their level of trauma training and how they’re approach can help you. Trauma-specific therapeutic modalities include Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and Internal Family Systems.
In addition to traditional talk-therapy, brain-based therapy treatments like EMDR and Brainspotting address the parts of the brain where traumatic memories are stored and help you reprocess those memories in a less distressing manner. Because they target your brain directly, these therapies can have relatively fast results, and are becoming increasingly popular.
Outside of therapy, if you have noticed something has triggered you, you can begin by mindfully noticing those sensations and feelings and showing yourself compassion. You may take a moment to focus on your breath and bring your awareness to your body and all five of your senses. By centering your attention on yourself and your environment, you are reminding your brain that you are here, now, not back in the threatening environment of the distressing event.
Sarah Holland is a Clinical Associate and Clinical Events and Communications Manager at The Viva Center. She specializes in working with adolescents and adults who have experienced trauma, as well as anxiety, depression, self-injury, and identity exploration.