In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Note: this post is triggering. Are you sure that you want to read it right now? 


In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Getting triggered is no fun. The first place that I feel it is in the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet as the initial shock wears off and an inflammation feedback cycle begins. The extremities of my hands and feet begin to burn and itch and flush bright red. I’ve come to recognize this odd sensation as a harbinger of further symptoms, which never fail to materialize. My reaction progresses into a sickening onslaught of anxiety, as if my nervous system had been torn out of my body and relocated naked to the surface of my skin. I feel as if I were seconds away from taking a prolonged oral exam in a subject that I have never studied in front of a panel of Supreme Court judges whose verdict will decide my fate as to the guillotine that restrains me, even while my mind is lucidly aware that this is hardly the case. Left unabated, my panic can cascade until it becomes “unmanageable,” to parrot a canonical clinical understatement. In order to disrupt the cascade, I take a low-dose of prescription alpha-blocker that incites sleep, which somehow serves to reboot my neural hard drive. This is good because I’ll eventually wake up more or less ready to face a new day on my own terms.

I know right? It sucks. It interferes with deadlines, teaching, driving, getting to little league on time – you-name-it. The arguably biggest part of the reason that it sucks so bad centers around my inability to accurately predict when and where I might be dealing with the experience described above. Rationally, I understand that because I was in abject terror once a long time ago, my body over-anticipates danger in the naive hope of ensuring my future safety absolutely. Unfortunately for me, this rational understanding of the process cannot, in itself, make it stop – and so I must merely try to manage my reaction until it passes. It happens less and less as the years go by, so that’s good anyway. Every survivor is a unique individual and the triggering process is equally specific. I can’t speak to anybody else’s symptoms or experience, no matter how similar our trauma, but I sure as hell can speak about mine. If you happen to know of a sure-fire better way to manage the above, then I’m all ears. My own method is the result of more than a decade of deliberate trial and error governed by trustworthy medical input.

I am similar to a lot of survivors in that descriptions of sexual violence and its aftermath – even rather clinical ones – are reasonably likely candidates for triggering. But then again, not always. Here’s something that you may find puzzling: there’s this short story that I read about once a year (“Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson). I’m not necessarily suggesting that you read it; I just provided the link as reference. Trust me when I tell you that it can hold its own against snuff pornography in terms of its Trigger Index. It includes first-person descriptions of starvation, homelessness, sexual violence and involuntary abortion. It is also the most novel, daring and skilled writing that I’ve ever read concerning climate change. It’s a narrative of apocalyptic environmental deterioration that explores the potential for disastrous social consequences specific to women’s lives. Maybe I keep reading it because I am a perverse and obsessive masochist. Maybe I read it because it is an exceptional piece of literature that also triggers an explosion of imagination that made me view Global Change in a whole new light. Maybe both. I will not stop reading it because what I gain from it out-balances the price that its reading exacts. I do not include it on the syllabus for my course on Global Change, and I feel somewhat conflicted about this. I can’t quite figure out how to write an appropriate trigger warning and until I do, I’ll teach a different text.

Some apparently believe that trigger warnings encourage survivors to indulge themselves in trauma-avoidance. In fact, I’ve read more than one article that comes dangerously close to suggesting that getting triggered is actually therapeutic for survivors. To this I respond, “LOL if only it were that easy!” The truth is that trigger warnings empower me. They give me a precious modicum of control over when and where I may anticipate the symptoms that I described within the first paragraph of this post. This is of great value to me. My placement of this value does not reflect a belief that it is the world’s responsibility never to trigger me. Indeed, I believe that trigger warnings are a courtesy. I also believe that you probably have no idea of the true depth of my gratitude when this courtesy is extended to me. Have you ever felt bad about sexual violence and wondered what you could do about it? Idea: you can put a goddam trigger warning on the sensitive materials that you request others to read. It won’t hurt the people who don’t need it, and it might slightly smooth the rocky ground that some of us must traverse indefinitely. It is a gift that, for whatever crazy messed-up reason, you have the power to give. Will you give it? I fear that I’ll sound like a postmodern cliché when I tell you that writing a post about triggering is in itself sort of triggering, but it will serve to explain why you won’t find me yukking it up on Twitter for a bit. If you’re reading this, I weighed the pros and cons, and then decided to go ahead and post. Because that’s what my life is when it comes to the topic of sexual violence. Because constantly evaluating the trade-off between bodily risk and uncertain gain is what women’s lives are.


Heaven knows that the internet hasn’t been stingy in its supply of discussion as to the legitimacy of the trigger warning.  Everybody and his brother have an opinion about it, ranging from the New Republic to the NYT to the AAUP, each of whom have graced us with their cyber-statements.  I wrote this because no where within this raging verbstorm can I find a convincing description of triggering, which (for me) is a physiological phenomenon.  And I think it matters.