The Real Danger of Trigger Warnings: A Survivor’s Perspective

Published on Medium.com on March 10, 2016.

Trigger warning: Trauma, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, child sexual abuse, rape

Once again, my feeds are full of stories about trigger warnings. And, once again, precisely no one knows what they’re talking about.

Every two weeks like clockwork, social media drags out one of two types of stories: some group falsely appropriating the trigger warning banner to justify their attempts to ban a book, or some smug commentator decrying the concept like they’re the first to do so. This week’s story is just the latest in a string that critics have gleefully seized on to prove their terrifying straw man that equates “being triggered” with “being offended.” And they paint some positively dystopian views of its dangers.

Critics worry that trigger warnings are just excuses to avoid discomfort, hurt feelings or difficult subjects. They worry such warnings suppress free speech in order to coddle a hypersensitive, sheltered generation. They worry those who claim to be triggered need exposure to learn how to handle the “real world.” Thanks for the touching concern.

But for all of this hand-wringing, they’ve missed the real danger.

That’s easy to do when they’re content to ignore the perspectives of those of us actually asking for the warnings, most of whom are not properly represented by any mainstream coverage of trigger warnings to date. It is incredibly difficult to correct this false impression when major news outlets— from The New York Times to The Guardian to CNN to Jezebel — are content to write piece after piece on either side of the debate without speaking to a single trauma survivor.

Consider this one more attempt (and there have been many) to describe what’s really at stake.


I am a childhood trauma survivor. I’m also an activist, a philosophy grad student and a journalist. I’ve spent my life exposing my personal struggles to public scrutiny, advocating for freedom of information and raising awareness about issues many would prefer not to talk about. I’m as anti-censorship or “coddling” as one can get. But my personal experiences with trauma, and particularly with the trauma response we call “being triggered,” have made it clear why we need trigger warnings in academia and elsewhere.

Think of the most terrified you’ve ever been. If that fear wasn’t caused by a real and present physical threat to your safety, double it. Imagine that fear can hit at any time, with or without a discernible cause. Imagine that sometimes — maybe 1 in 3 — you know exactly what caused it.

Imagine spending the whole day with a weight compressing your lungs, like being stuffed into a too-tight shirt you can’t take off. Your throat and eyes burn. Your stomach clenches and twists, the nauseating effects of the dopamine-adrenaline-fear-danger-fear cocktail flooding your veins.

Sometimes that fear comes out in uncontrollable twitches of your chest, legs, hands. That’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes it’s all forced back inward, one long scream sounding in your head for a day, a week at a time. No rest.

Sometimes you’re sitting in class, coming off a rough few nights of reading about childhood sexual abuse. Sometimes you think about skipping class, just this once. But the material is too important. You need to be there, to contribute.

On one of many days like that, I am sitting in a classroom talking about fathers raping their children. This isn’t even my exact trauma, but triggers don’t have to make sense that way. My breaths are coming short and shallow. I focus on inhaling. I can’t stop my leg from shaking; I stop trying.

My vision narrows like I might faint, but I know from experience I won’t. My heart is pounding; the adrenaline makes me squirm. I want out of this classroom that felt safe yesterday. I want to scream that trauma ends your life, even if you survive it. Instead, I split my focus between hiding my symptoms and listening to the discussion.

Someone says something well-intentioned but oh-so-wrong, and my heart drops into my stomach. They don’t understand. They can’t understand what this is like, and I’m grateful for every person who will never feel this way, but I’m also desperate to explain. I feel exiled, alien, as the class calmly dissects these experiences as if trauma is far away, as if it can’t touch this room.

The anxiety collapses inward, and I have two choices. I can leave right now, walk away and try to calm down, or I can let just a little bit of this cacophony bleed out into words. I choose to talk. I tell a piece of my own trauma survival story (it doesn’t feel like “recovery” right now), just enough to make an impression. I have practice turning fury and fear into testimony, but I’m never sure how sane I sound.

Talking helps. I hope my classmates understand.

After, my professor asks if I’m okay. Thanks me for my words and calls them brave. I don’t feel brave and my story barely feels like survival, much less “recovery,” but I appreciate the sentiment. I can’t stop my chest from shaking as I assure her I’ll be fine.

By the time I’m on the metro, I’m numb — the deep, dark numb of emotional dissociation. My body has had enough: It all turns off. It’s an unpleasant relief. I look at the crowd and think about the millions suffering in that moment, the bizarre way our lives go on, oblivious. I can’t feel alarmed.

I think about how simple it would be to step in front of the train. I know I won’t. I wish it would scare me more.

It takes a day and a half to feel better. The only thing that makes it remotely “okay” is that I was prepared. I had a choice, and I chose to expose myself. It is so much worse to be blindsided, to unexpectedly be reminded that you are always, will always be, the terrified survivor. No wonder so many of us don’t make it to graduation.

I don’t want coddling. I don’t want to avoid unpleasant subjects. I couldn’t if I wanted to. I don’t even want to avoid my triggers. My friends and fellows in recovery often express the same. It’s hard to admit weakness, hard to let trauma affect your life. It’s even harder not to get involved in subjects that weigh on your heart constantly.

We need to talk about child abuse, rape, genocide, self-harm, suicide, sexism, racism and all the other triggering subjects. Those of us healing from trauma know this better than anyone. Our guts ignite when we think about them. We want them talked about, far more than they are.

We just want a choice. We deserve a choice. It’s a small comfort, but sometimes it makes all the difference. No one should be forced into this. No one should be surprised with it. And no one should have to choose between their mental health and an education.

So what’s the real danger of trigger warnings?

That survivors could lose out on an education because of this impossible choice. That a greater burden is falling on those already handling more than their peers. That we are re-enacting trauma by eliminating choice, by telling survivors they’re weak and cowardly for asking for a simple warning. That we’re silencing the voices we most need to hear in these conversations because they are unable to adequately prepare.

The danger is that we fail to extend basic empathy to those among us suffering the heaviest burdens. Is there any more essential mission of education than that?

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