The first time I felt my stomach do a flip when I heard the term “heart attack” a couple weeks after my father’s death, I shook it off.
As well as the second,third, fourth time.
Each time I pushed that deep, choking feeling deeper into myself until it started to grow. Until it finally started to build up. Until it started giving me headaches in the middle in the night. Until it eventually built up to the point of me having anxiety spasms. Until it made me feel entirely the same as the day he died.
Being able to call it a trigger gives you the power to define the pain you’re going through, and that’s how I understand it.
The thing is, I still feel ashamed and foolish whenever I say I’m “triggered.” I stutter when saying the beginning of the word and feel awkward as it falls stumbles off my tongue. A part of me feels like a bother to people or that I shouldn’t talk about my personal traumas. I just don’t want to seem weak, when the norm is to just suck it up no matter what. Everyone goes through pain, so why address the little things, even though they cause big waves?
“Words can’t hurt you,” I kept thinking to myself. But the event behind the word? Well, that tears me apart daily. When the memory of a trauma consumes you, even the tiniest word can set it off.
One day I realized that it is absolutely crucial to address these little pings of pain — these triggers — that we all experience in all of our different contexts. By not being honest about the pain that affects us, we are subconsciously affecting our society in big ways. We are saying that having an emotional reaction is something that won’t be tolerated and will not get you far. We are saying that the only answer is fighting through it, instead of addressing the pain first. We are ignoring the pain behind huge problems in our society, not giving ourselves the proper tools to fix them.
The day I realized by trigger was real was the day I learned how to deal with my trauma better. This is how a lot of people feel when they’re facing the pain they’ve experienced and still experience constantly. But the fact that the word has become a joke and an insult, is taking us a huge step back from helping ourselves and our society heel.
“Are you triggered?” is the new, quirky way to call someone overly politically correct and the internet has overflowed with memes, jokes and responses involving this term. The sad part is that this simple phrase could easily be used as a mindful tool to create conversation and understanding of a person’s traumas and mental health problems, but instead is being completely misunderstood. It’s funny because the question, “Are you triggered?” should be an act of kindness of empathy towards someone’s struggles.
In the last year the discussion on triggers have blown up from all sides. It recently made the news when the University in Chicago sent a letter to its freshman saying that they will not tolerate any trigger warnings or safe spaces. The disturbing part of this is that while the college seemed to only want to encourage open minded discussion, it actually alienated a lot of students with mental health issues or previous traumas. This term is also being discussed in parts of the media (usually on the right). Tomi Lahren recently added one of her videos with, “Stay triggered, snowflakes,” as a way to diss liberals who disagree with her views. This is nothing new in her ongoing groundbreaking reportage on liberal snowflakes via The Blaze. While she and others believe she is standing up for anti-censorship by brushing off trigger warnings as a joke, she is simultaneously dismissing the very real oppression behind a lot of these triggers.
The way the use of trigger warnings started was through the evolution of social media and blogging. We are living in a digital reality, where if you put something out there, you won’t get just one negative message, you can get over a thousand — instantaneously. These negative notifications can have serious damage, especially when the person is anonymous. A lot of people still like to say that just ignoring hateful comments on the internet are all you need to do, or that just blocking the person will do the trick. But is that really the case? Even when social media and the internet have become so deeply integrated into our reality?
Sticks and stones…
I became curious, when someone responded on Twitter to me about a debate on feminism with “r u triggered.” The only reason I took notice was because I’ve seen people use this as a comeback before. It was interesting because she was replying to a tweet where we were discussing feminism. She disagreed with feminism, fine. But what’s the need for saying I’m triggered? This trend has become a way that people like to insult leftist individuals by simply dismissing that anyone with a left-leaning opinion is “weak,” “overly sensitive”— triggered. When the very term of triggered is primarily used for people to communicate their traumas to others, a lot of times in online spaces.
Now I know, there aren’t a lot of people exactly going out and telling veterans that their PTSD doesn’t matter. However, the bulk of criticisms of trigger warnings involve politics and opposing views. It seems that as soon as you tie in the trigger-warning conversation with race, class gender etc. there is an upheaval, both from the right and left side of political spectrums.
“Slavery was a long time ago, just get over it.” “Women have enough rights, don’t be so sensitive.” ‘If you’re poor, it’s your own fault, stop crying like a baby.” All real examples I’ve heard/read.
People also need to realize that mental health can be caused by oppression due to racism, sexism, ableism, etc. There needs to be a better understanding that trauma can come from many places. It can come from war, abusive relationships, sexual aggression, as well as deeply rooted experienced oppression. And when people speak out about this pain, we can better understand the situation they are in — and why we it’s so hard for us to identify with their pain, and why we try to dismiss it.
Lindsey Holmes, Deputy Health Living Editor at the Huffington Post wrote in a recent article,
The problem with this interpretation of trigger warnings is that it presumes all participants have the same level of privilege. But many discussions are not just intellectual exercises for everyone ― people who face discrimination, have experienced violence or simply struggle with brain chemistry are at a disadvantage because they’re potentially dealing with a mental health issue. A desire to be warned about potential triggers has nothing to do with people not wanting to “challenge” themselves academically.
The dismissal of trigger warnings or any kid of cautionary phrases like this is simply undermining people’s trauma.
When trying to understanding trauma, it is so incredibly important to be empathetic and understanding of people’s individual grievances and what they stem from. Even if we don’t agree or understand why someone is triggered, chances are there’s a pretty good reason why they are. Listen.
And then the gun goes off.
Triggers aren’t only being used by people to justify things that affect them negatively. The term is also being used by people on the other side as a shield for their ignorance and misunderstanding. They say something like “Oh, you’re just triggered,” as a way to avoid debate completely because to them, a trigger warning is nothing. It’s not the whole gun.
If you think the left is being weak in their arguments and are turning “soft,” fine. Go ahead and call us weak, spineless and a bunch of cry babies. Check the thesaurus for some useful synonyms. But don’t turn the term into a lame joke that discourages people to say how they’re feeling.
The anti-trigger warning view is rooted in the fact that in the real world, you can’t show weakness. Or that a political argument can be as extensive as you want it to be, but if someone calls it a trigger warning, it’s just you being too sensitive.
I understand there are times when the term can be overused. This happens with new phrases and evolution of language. But why has this term become such an insult? Such an unapologetic diss that a lot of conservatives love to use to justify their hate for the left. Maybe the best thing would be to lose the term altogether? This won’t fix anything, though, because the message is the same. A lot of people who hate trigger warnings don’t want to put in the time to understand other people’s problems.
The truth is, we’ll always have trigger warnings. The name might change over the years and evolve into something new — maybe something more understandable. Along with this, there will always be people who choose not to understand other people’s pain and suffering. The ones who only see the trauma when they’re staring into the barrel of the gun.
Arbela Capas is a freelance writer from Cleveland Ohio, studying Journalism at CSU. She appreciates appreciates fluffy cats and good discussions.
This was originally posed on Arbela’s medium account.