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Feminspire | April 18, 2014

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Don’t Trigger Me: Confessions of a “Sensitive Snowflake”

Don’t Trigger Me: Confessions of a “Sensitive Snowflake”

Trigger warning for descriptions of political acts of violence, sexual abuse, body dysphoria

Monday afternoon, I woke up to a number of notifications from various news and social media apps about the tragic explosions at the Boston marathon. That fact in itself doesn’t make me different from anyone else–I’m sure a number of people were taken aback by the news in various ways, be they at work, school or relaxing at home, like I was.

The reason that it’s important that I woke up to the news of the explosions was that in the summer of 2006, I woke up from a similar afternoon nap in the sun at a beach resort outside of my family’s hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, to bombs falling on the harbour. I was there during the 2006 war with Israel that caused my family’s vacation to end in us fleeing via cab to Jordan (and, in the case of my stepmom and brothers, to wait over a month for the American evacuation barge to get them safely out of the country), as well as nearly 2,000 Lebanese casualties, roughly 200 Israeli deaths, and years of therapy to cope with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I experienced following the trauma of experiencing that kind of violence.

I don’t have the sort of PTSD from violent trauma that people who live in war zones experience–I rarely have untriggered flashbacks, and when I am triggered (often by loud sounds made by trash collecting trucks or TVs in other rooms playing loud war films), the flashbacks never last longer than a minute or two. I’m lucky that I don’t have to live with those sorts of attacks every day.

But there are a lot of ways in which I’m not lucky. Perhaps the most insidious, and most alarming, aspect of dealing with PTSD or any other trauma-related disorder (diagnosed or not), is that there are constant reminders everywhere about what happened to me–be they on television, in the news and, perhaps most often, in social media.

People who have experienced these sorts of reminders, or triggers, know how painful unwarranted reminders can be–how the simplest images or words, be they stories describing brutal rapes or photos of thin women, can ruin one’s day. For this reason, many bloggers writing about topics related to trauma choose to put boldfaced or bracketed trigger warnings within their pieces (such as the one at the beginning of this article) as a means of warning trauma survivors that the following information is sensitive.

While a lot of people disagree with the use of trigger warnings, the concept of warning consumers about sensitive information is not only a worthwhile pursuit–it’s one that has been in use under different names for decades. Anyone who’s ever watched “Law and Order: SVU” or any other television show containing violent imagery is familiar with the warning “viewer discretion is advised,” and as a person who’s suffered multiple forms of trauma (including sexual), I’ve always appreciated the warning. So why are trigger warnings so unpopular that typing “trigger warning” into the Google search bar produces suggested additions like “are bullshit,” “are overused” and “are stupid”?

I’ve read legitimate criticisms of the use of trigger warnings, from those who criticize some Internet communities for appropriating the language of anti-oppression, to the amazing piece over at The Rumpus written by a rape survivor on why triggers are a part of life that can’t be warned against. I’ve also read criticisms from other large subsets of the Internet who aren’t even worth naming demean trigger warnings as being for “sensitive snowflakes” who are “too emotionally fragile to leave their basements and so much as look upon anything that may make their delicate little hearts uncomfortable.” Other bloggers, particularly of the feminist variety, feel that posting trigger warnings is an essential duty to the mental health of their readers. There’s got to be a middle ground somewhere between loud and often divisive arguments that the use (and misuse) of trigger warnings seems to spur.

My nuanced beliefs on the use of trigger warnings are based in an observation that seems obvious: there is no “one-size-fits-all” trigger warning, just as there is no “typical” trauma survivor or “normal” way to be triggered. The way I respond to trigger warnings (as well as surprise triggers) within my self-curated blogosphere changes daily–sometimes, when I see warnings about rape or sexual abuse, I’m compelled to read on as a means of catharsis and relating my experiences to those of other people. Other times, I’ll avoid them because I don’t have the energy to deal with it.

No matter how I choose to respond, though, one thing remains constant–I am always thankful for the warning. And for every “overused” [TW] tag, there are countless instances when I’m going about my day only to be unnecessarily triggered–like the time I was in a class showing the documentary Happy where one woman tangentially discusses how she realized her father had sexually abused her (a discussion which lasted less than five minutes and was never brought up again), or watching Girls and repeatedly having to turn off episodes because depictions of non-consensual and coercive sex revolving around the main character’s ex hit way too close to home. Even the video for TLC’s “Unpretty,”one of my favorite songs and a championed anthem of body positivity, has caused uneasy feelings with its depiction of disordered eating and body image issues.

Are trigger warnings overused? Maybe. But in my experience, being warned that something I’m about to read, look at or listen to might freak me out, for whatever reason, is a welcome change from being constantly forced to “deal with it.”

Written by Noor Al-Sibai

  • Kaii

    I agree wholeheartedly!

  • Elenath

    I think it’s really something that should be a matter of opinion.

    To be honest, trigger warning make me feel more uncomfortable than the actual content does.

    I can be browsing the Internet as a feminist, looking for articles and statistics on, say, false rape allegations, and then suddenly on an article I already knew was about rape, since it had rape in the title, there is a trigger warning popping up on the page.

    I go from being a feminist looking for information to a victim in a split second and I can feel the tinge of panic and distress, the familiar warnings of a panic attack. I am usually ok, just a deep breath and I am able to shake it off and continue with what I am doing.

    I don’t resent their presence, I won’t boycott them because I know some people like to see them there.

    What I don’t like is angered insistence that people HAVE to have trigger warnings, regardless of how they feel on the topic of trigger warnings.

    Usually I find that most content on the Internet is fairly self evident when it comes to subject matter, if an article specifically mentions a topic then i feel it is fair to say that it could be a trigger for some people and the extra warning seems redundant to me, and sometimes upsetting.

    But that is just my personal experience.

  • ActionJeans

    I have PTSD, chronic anxiety and frequent panic attacks that manifest as heart attack-like symptoms. I am a survior of childhood sexual abuse and a first hand witness of the ’88 Ramstein Flugtag airshow disaster. My 15 year old son committed suicide and I was the one that found him. The memory of that morning haunts my every waking moment and I am often caught off guard by intense grief, anguish and a panicked sense of impending doom. I can never be sure what will set me off. It could be something as simple as a sad song or just seeing a child at play.

    That said, I hope you think I’m not being insensitive when I say that “trigger warnings” more often than not cause me to roll my eyes. It’s not everyone else’s responsibility to walk on eggshells for my benefit. I don’t have the right to tell other people what they can discuss and how they should discuss it. Even if I wanted to.

    Blanket trigger warning: The world is a fucked up, scary place where bad things happen, all the time.

  • John Snow

    GET OVER IT. The only reason you are such a sensitive snowflake is because this ridiculous society allows you to be, and it’s sickening. Put your big girl pants on and deal with life.