Online & afraid
Have you ever seen a post on the internet about something awful which starts with the caveat: Trigger Warning? A few years ago I would post ‘trigger warnings’ on all my posts on social media. For example, if I was posting a news story which was about a woman being beaten up by her husband I would write at the top of the post: ‘Trigger Warning: domestic violence’. I was trying to make it easier for people who have PTSD to avoid content which might trigger strong negative reactions. I thought I was being kind, but I was actually quite confrontational and aggressive about it. I critisiced people who shared stuff that I thought needed a trigger warning on it. I created and took part in online ‘safe spaces’ which had rules and guidelines for how to communicate there, and came down harshly on those who didn't follow the rules.
I was putting my energy into trying to control what other people were doing instead of actually figuring out what I could do to pinpoint and challenge my own triggers. It was classic avoidance behaviour, and the more that I did it, the more frustrated I (and the people who had to deal with me) felt. And I wasn’t alone, there were lots of people like me out there. Trigger warnings were all over the internet to the point that it had become a big joke. Triggered had just started to mean ‘anything you mildly dislike’. People would be like ‘They ran out of coffee at work today. Triggered. Lol.’ There was a TRIGGERED meme which people would use to make fun of someone being annoyed or upset about something. It was the modern day equivalent of calling someone a drama queen and laughing at them for overreacting.
Eventually it got to the point where I felt like nowhere online was ‘safe’. I felt disconnected from the world, alone, and afraid. I had bouts of being on and off social media. I would delete the apps and reinstall them, start new social media profiles and delete the old ones. My policing of trigger warnings had become a trigger in itself.
Two years ago I wrote publicly for the first time about being raped, and how we should talk about rape online so that we are kind to rape victims and someone commented ‘TRIGGERED’. I was absolutely devastated. It felt so mean. I felt like a joke. That was when I decided to ask my doctor to refer me to a psychologist.
After a while I understood that avoiding things that upset me, makes them more upsetting. I understood that I can not control what happens in the world but that I am somewhat in control of how I interact with it. I found out you don't need to either endure everything, or shut yourself off completely, that there are ways to make your experience online much less upsetting (it involves not being online so much and just deleting the assholes).
My therapist tells me that most triggers are so unique and contextual that it’s impossible to predict what someone will be triggered by. Most people are not actually triggered by posts on social media but in that context we have been using the word ‘triggered’ to describe more general feelings of being shocked, offended or upset. Triggers are commonly something more sensual. In fact the most common types of triggers are smells and noises.
In therapy I have figured out that my biggest triggers are actually noises people make with their mouth and nose. Slurping, burping, sneezing, wheezing, sniffing, chewing and swallowing noises are what actually triggers me. When I hear these noises I suddenly feel weak, small and terrified. I feel as if someone is touching me, and as though I cannot escape. I feel unable to concentrate on anything other than that noise and sometimes I feel so upset that I start to cry. Sound strange? I talked with someone else diagnosed with PTSD who told me that her biggest trigger was the screeching of a train pulling up to a station, and someone else I know said that the smell of garlic has been causing her extreme stress for many years.
So if triggers are that unique, how can we properly give people a trigger warning? I don’t think that we should. If we treat people with PTSD like they need to be protected from everything that’s bad in the world that will only enhance their feelings of fear and isolation. We can’t protect people with PTSD from their triggers, all we can do is try to handle sensitive issues appropriately, and that’s not just being mindful of people with PTSD, it’s about being considerate to everyone.