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mental health mondays :: trigger tuesday

actual trigger
in the last year or so, i've received a lot of requests to cover the topic of 'triggers' for mental health mondays. in fact, i did cover part of the topic back in 2011, but the fact is that that post is out of date considering how the use of the term has grown. when i wrote the piece originally, it was an attempt to explain how the term was related to panic attacks because i felt like it was a term that was misunderstood. four years later, i still think that it's a term that's misunderstood, but for different reasons. now, it's not merely necessary to understand what triggers are, but to understand what they aren't, because the term has gone from being misunderstood to being abused. so today, i present, trigger 2- the misunderstanding.

first of all, i want to make something clear: triggers are 100% real and not uncommon. they are reactions to past trauma that are uncontrolled and which may or may not seem related to the trauma itself. for instance, a survivor of domestic abuse who sees another person being abused can have a crippling, uncontrollable reaction to that. alternately, that person might have that same reaction to the sound of someone taking out the trash, because abuse often occurred around the time that this was done in the past. no one can predict what is going to constitute a trigger and many people are unable to identify that something is a trigger, particularly if it's unrelated. our abuse victim who is triggered by the clatter of garbage cans and the grunts of someone struggling to get bags of stinking waste to the curb might just think they are getting angry about the noise. identifying triggers is something that psychotherapy can help with. so, yes, triggers are real things, and they can be complex and unexpected. [if you want to know more of my thoughts on that, you can read the old blog post linked above.]

the problem with terms like this is that they have a tendency to tumble willy-nilly into common parlance, where their meaning gets diluted. we talked about this before with reference to people saying that they have "ocd". obsessive compulsive disorder is a serious mental illness with damaging consequences for those who suffer from it. but in common usage, it's used as a synonym for a quirky dedication to order and organisation. likewise, the term trigger, which is specifically related to trauma, becomes a synonym for feelings of anger, repulsion or sadness when certain topics are raised, because a person associates them with past bad memories.

those things might sound similar, and there is a grey area in determining when things are harmful and when they're not, but that should be taken as a red flag to leave diagnosing triggers and a condition like ptsd to professionals. never diagnose yourself or people you know as having triggers caused by ptsd unless you're a qualified professional in the field. [and even then, you probably want to get a second opinion on self-diagnosis.] the process can be daunting even for professionals, so as an amateur, you have to admit that you just don't get it. [and fyi, i don't get it. i'm an interested amateur who can understand some of the writing on the subject, enough to render it for the general public.]

one of the biggest problems with expanding the meaning of any specific term to include more than was originally intended is that it dilutes the true meaning, which is harmful to those who are really suffering. it puts the idea in the public imagination that the condition is something that's relatively common, the sort of thing that lots of people deal with every day. claiming certain things as triggers, therefore, seems less an appeal for help and more a demand for sympathy. this is complicated by the fact that not everyone who has survived trauma develops disordered  thought patterns related to it. no one quite knows why, but some brains recover differently from trauma than others. science is working on that and will get back to us.

probably the most inflammatory discussions about triggers and their validity, however, comes from their use in academia. we've all heard the horror stories about professors living in fear of students reporting them for teaching material that triggers a traumatic reaction, of literary classics being removed from syllabi because they could cause significant upset. now, as a caution, i would remind readers that universities have always been a crucible for these sorts of battles over language. they're where we see the extreme end of demands to conform to certain codes, but it's nearly impossible to document any effect they have in the real world. the political correctness movement of the 80s and early 90s was touted as the end of the world by those who disapproved of it, but the net result of all the talk was that courses covered a wider variety of voices and that it became expected that both students and professors would question accepted narratives of history written entirely by dominant cultures. it's the end of the world, i tells ya.

the topic of trigger warnings in academia is a big deal now, because it's going to end the world and turn us all into weak, floppy, incapable victims or frustrated alpha peeps and, of course, that will mean the end of the world. but chances are it won't, any more than political correctness did twenty years ago and such heated rhetoric helps absolutely nothing. what's more important is the tacit belief that goes along with it, which will not end the world, but is nonetheless a problem, that we need to be protected from that which is painful to us. of course, there are painful experiences from which we should be protected, and from which we should protect ourselves; no one needs to blow their hand off experimenting with chemicals at home or, to take an emotional example, no one should be forced by friends to discuss past instances of abuse if they don't want to. but to try to shut ourselves off from all pain is futile, and to equate all pain with the psychological term "trigger" is ignorant.

for starters, general things like the themes of books or topics of discussion are rarely triggers to begin with. rather, triggers tend to be highly specific and sensory rather than cerebral [see the psych central article linked earlier]. so even suggesting that material taught in classes is likely to act as a trigger to those who suffered past trauma shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. to repeat what i said earlier, amateurs accomplish little by trying to interpret terms like this out of context, even when their intentions are good.

some have linked the desire for protection from perceived harmful elements to the culture of protection among parents that emerged in the early eighties [for instance]. faced with rising crime rates, and increasingly violent crimes, parents were forced to crack down on the amount of freedom they allowed their children and took sometimes extreme steps to block anything that might be harmful. [remember, the eighties were also the decade when record companies were forced to label music that had content that could be considered offensive, with the argument that such things could be harmful to children.] so the much-discussed "millennials" grew up with the understanding that protection from everything from violence to language was good [and that it was the responsibility of other people]. so this method of thinking did not emerge in a vacuum, nor is it purely the product of millennial thinking.

the other bad message that underlines the current obsession with triggering and sheltering is that this sort of avoidance is actually considered a symptom of ptsd- something that needs to be fixed. now, no one in their right mind is claiming that the way to overcome a trigger is to just expose yourself to it until you don't feel it anymore. but structured or limited exposure is desirable, because it will help the sufferer deal with their trauma and to overcome the irrational fears that disrupt their lives. learning to recognise that something is a trigger, that it is linked to deeper problems, and that it is not threatening in and of itself is part of the healing process. encouraging traumatised people to avoid triggers at all costs is like recommending someone who's been stabbed should get their wound cleaned, but not stitched shut.

and to complicate things still further, there's no proof attaching trigger warnings to posts or images online is helpful to anyone. in fact, it may encourage people who are depressed to seek out those images as affirmation of their hopeless world view.

so what's the meaning of all this?

tl;dr :: triggers are real and they are terrifying to those who suffer from them. but the term trigger is abused by non-experts in ways that can cause more harm than good. learn what you can, but leave diagnosis to people who've learned more.

sneak preview :: next week, i'll be covering the most frightening and most horrible topic yet on mhm. i'll leave you to imagine all the possibilities.


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