Trigger warnings have often been mocked as annoying.
Admitting being triggered is seen as ridiculous at best, or weak and despicable at worst.
It’s important to note that no-one wants or choses to to be “triggered”.
The rise of mocking “trigger warnings” and being “triggered” can overshadow the usefulness of the terminology.
“Triggered” relates to how the brain responds to past trauma, or difficult, painful, or unwanted feelings.
If the brain is not able to comprehend the level of pain or emotion at the time happens, it is stored instead.
This is what leads to the release of these emotions at a later time, often when something is similar or related to the hidden memory or pain.
By definition a trigger relates to the past emotional self; the present events do not directly causes the emotional response. This is why accusations of fragility are often misplaced.
Many people have deep emotions that they have never dealt with, because we live in a society with a limited patience and understanding of emotional damage.
As children we are especially vulnerable to this. Our worlds are very small, and very easily shaped by the people around them. If parents or authority figures are unfair, cruel, or hurt us as children, we have no way to understand it, often not realising until later in life that the adults were in the wrong, not us.
If our pain isn’t addressed, it becomes stored. When it is released, the person might have no idea that it comes from the past. This makes it harder for them to understand it. If you can’t understand the pain, you can’t process it, and it will not go away.
Understanding triggers and traumas, big and small, explains a lot of otherwise irrational and strong responses that we have as adults. Once we understand the pattern, we can change it and heal from it.
The internet has helped a lot more people to understand this.
The hatred against trigger warnings is a misplaced reaction to this growing awareness and understanding of pain. (Vox covered this outrage really well.)
If you hate “trigger warnings” and the culture of fragile “triggered” victims, consider the choice of solutions.
Either, you ask people to bottle their pain for forever, to repress it so deep that they can’t even feel it. Pain shapes their personality. Their life is built around hiding a void. It comes out in other ways like alcoholism, hate, violence, obsession and brittle intolerant coping strategies. Think 1950’s America post-war generation, escaping into strict social roles and silent alcoholism.
Or, you realise that pain needs to be fixed. You acknowledge life is hard, and confusing, especially for children and vulnerable groups. You allow people space to heal and self-care. Problems are talked about, solutions offered. Lives are built around honesty and health, not hiding and shame. You hope that in future there will not be no more backlog of hidden pain to deal with.
The problem of growing awareness is that for a lot of people, the damage has already been done, and the pain still needs to be dealt with, even though the emotions represent a past injustice which has very little to do with the present day.
It might sometimes feel easier to ask people to just continue hiding it; to shut up about being triggered or about their hard childhood or tragic experience.
But when we try to hide remembered pain because we don’t understand it, we do not solve the problem. We simply move it deeper down, causing continuing damage for the future.
If we want a less “triggering” and less painful future, we need to take responsibility for moving through and safely managing our pain today. That means being more careful and psychologically aware than we once were.
The alternative is to continue with silent suffering because that is what we once thought worked, despite the negative effects.
Ultimately the decision to prioritise mental health is always a personal one, but the societal tide is changing. More and more psychological awareness is growing. We are learning new things about how our brains and self-image develop.
It might be different to what seems instinctive, but that doesn’t make it wrong or harmful. Acknowledging challenges is not the same as creating them, but it is the beginning of healing them. Even if it is more painful in the start, it is the continuation of moving to the better, healthier world we all want.
Note: I have put some links in this post, but the most important is this video from Katie Morton, a YouTuber and therapist, and her video on Processing. I recommend almost all of her videos if you are interested in this topic.