Trigger Warnings & Resilience
Resilience is a huge part of my life, throughout trauma and after. As an abused child, I had to rely on myself to survive, and as an adult, I find Trigger Warnings uninformed and harmful. They do disservice (dare I say injustice?) to my own inner resources or to my therapeutic work, as it seems counterproductive to stress reduction and downright cruel to my sense of self to be rendered equally helpless each time I’m confronted by a trauma reminder. In the Real World—whether at home, at school, or at the mall—trauma reminders can be everywhere and in everything; they are common-place, even boring items that I own and must use because they are part of life. Though their threat levels vary emotionally, they do not compromise my immediate safety and need no “warnings.” Because resilience is contextual, I must prepare for vulnerable situations of all kinds but particularly for when I actually find myself in a traumatic situation, like distressful news, an accident, or a crisis. I could hide forever, but then I wouldn’t even trust myself. Therefore, it remains my responsibility to build my capacity skills and nurture my inner safe space.
Case One: Reacting to an object and situation in private directly to trauma: my bed and sleep. Feeling comfortable in my own apartment, even in my own skin, tests me daily. To prepare for one of the most basic aspects of life, I have established a lengthy bedtime routine so that I am relaxed and able to rest. Some of my tools involve stretching to calming music; looking at art; deep breathing; containment exercises; lucid dreaming exercises; watching online animal cameras (including live streams of rhinos, bears, and puppies); taking medication; and taking a few minutes to engage both my tactile and visual senses with my plants, soft plush toys, and light-reflecting objects like crystals, geodes, and tumbled stones.
Case Two: Reacting to an object in public indirectly related to trauma: a stranger wearing the same style clothing as my abuser. I was unnerved and confused the first time I saw someone in an identical jacket as my abuser, but I was also semi-prepared, as being out of my home should always bring with it primitive awareness. Fight, Flight, or Freeze kicked in and I had to address the severity of the threat; turns out, none, as the person walked past without noticing me whatsoever. Suddenly the idea of an inanimate object “hurting” me seemed ludicrous, for the threat was only ever from the person behind the object. Furthermore, the jacket was such a common style at the time—same cut, colour, men’s, women’s—that I still see it on adults in my city, and now consider it regular positive exposure therapy for a more directly vulnerable situations.
Case Three: Reacting to something in public emotionally directly related to trauma: overhearing an argument or encountering disturbing material in class. In other words, I am having flashbacks and dissociating. Therapy and self-discipline comes into play now. First I must ground myself by stating what date it is, what city I’m in, where I am, and who I’m with. Then I must work on breathing exercises while assessing the threat level, that physically I am safe but feeling emotionally exposed. Addressing these feelings and actively attempting to engage more with my environment rather than withdrawing often brings context and relief. Occasionally I learn something in hindsight from the experience, like that I can relate to other people’s problems too instead of feeling all alone, or that I can appreciate a song for being a good song within itself (Formalism, which I will address further below). However, it is still within my agency to remove myself from situation if other methods do not work.
Case Four: Reacting to a crisis: being contacted by or seeing my abuser. This is a much more direct threat and, because I have built up my resilience, I am able to remain present and not dissociate, to not have a panic attack, and to have some measure of independence and control. This is what it means to not be a victim anymore.
Do you want to know what really invalidates my experiences? It isn’t when a university lets someone who disagrees with me speak, or when I read something upsetting that I’m not expecting. My experiences of both trauma and post-traumatic growth are impeded and invalidated by inaccurate mental health application, by censoring voices, and by denying me rational coping mechanisms like critical thinking, threat assessment, conversation and debate, and post-traumatic growth. Micromanaging and assuming you know what’s best for other people feels less like empathy and more like fascism, as all possible growth becomes restricted and stagnant, if not regressive. Furthermore, being reminded of my traumas doesn’t have to be a disturbing or debilitating experience; art has a beautiful quality of moving and empowering the viewer by allowing individual access and assessment on a very intimate level. If already labelled somehow, the viewer engages with the material based not on content but within a biased context and false narrative chosen by others, which is, in a way, quite re-victimizing. Where are trigger warning advocates’ respect for those who have lived through trauma and have the right to feel their own emotions and decisions? Unfortunately, politically-incorrect comedy, overt sexuality in both women and men, and violence of all kinds are censored and demonized rather than regarded as positive coping mechanisms and therapies. I feel extreme comfort when encountering very direct references to my experiences in TV shows like South Park, The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files, or from writers like Kathy Acker, Robert Cormier, Alan Moore, and Virginia Woolf because I can learn things about myself and the world through the frame of the show or book and come to new understandings of my past. Particularly I find ways to laugh and release grotesque tension and fear, or as Thomas Gray and Samuel Beckett might say, “laughing wild amid severest woe.” Part of resilience is integrity, or “the capacity to affirm the value of life in the face of death, to be reconciled with the finite limits of one’s own life and the tragic limitations of the human condition, and to accept these realities without despair” (Judith Herman, M.D., Trauma and Recovery, 1992). With such integrity and awareness, trauma survivors can achieve integration, meaning less dissociation, fragmentation, fear, and instability—healthy progress, I’d say.
Likewise in academia, for the engaged rather than offended student: the material, the professor, the classroom, the time spent studying in the library—indeed all aspects of university life—become a positive way to explore “dangerous” ideas. I myself have had bad encounters with professors, but accusing them across entire faculties of being insensitive to their students’ emotional needs is lazy and narcissistic. If you’re paying attention, professors already do provide context and engaging strategies for difficult material: lectures, classroom discussions, office hours, and the expectation that students at least be open to different modes of learning; rightly so, for after all, for what reason are you at university? One of my favourite topics from class was Formalism, as in, studying and appreciating art in and of itself, objectively, without author or reader context; learning this method was a relief and a pleasure, and I consider W.B. Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” one of the greatest poems ever written, thanks to the controversial professor who taught it to me word by word. University is about dropping your guard and your former beliefs, even if just for a few moments; the degree should be symbolic of the work, knowledge, effort, and intellectual strife. Exploring different ideas and having your worldview challenged, especially for those who’ve experienced trauma, brings a catharsis social justice could never imagine.
Life is full of a lot more things than just sexual and physical assaults, and I would much rather be able to move freely than seek ways to constantly relive the worst parts of my life. I like that I’m responsible for my own safe spaces, which includes my apartment, my therapist’s office, and my inner resilience. Discovering personal coping mechanisms instead of relying on others to soften the world restores the control and self-worth I was denied as a child. I say this especially to young people struggling with trauma, identity, academics, or even just trying to understand everyday situations: would you rather find ways to be resilient in the face of trauma or find ways to be victimized by it? I will not encourage you to forego general self-care in lieu of a warning; if somebody once denied you the ability to make your own choices, as my parents once did to me, let us not deny ourselves such agency now. Take care of yourselves, as you—only you—have the ability to choose how to act and react in this world, and though it takes work, practice will bring some catharsis and personal empowerment.