The conversation about trigger warnings in academic settings is seemingly perennial – my twitter feed this morning had two different threads about trigger warnings and what to do about them, encompassing multiple, conflicting perspectives.
What I haven’t seen much of in these conversations is any discussion of what it means when a person is triggered. There is a vast body of psychological literature that can described this in clinical terms, but what it feels like to be in that moment is something we don’t talk about much. There are excellent reasons for this – talking about triggers can be triggering; many people fear reprisals for speaking up from their departments or institutions; not everyone is in a place in their recovery where they can vocalize their experience.
But I can.
When I’m triggered, several things can happen:
Sometimes I get overwhelmingly anxious. My body dumps adrenaline into my system and my heart races, my breathing becomes labored, and I often need the bathroom right away. I feel dizzy and overwhelmed. I go into sensory overload and there feels like there is just too much of everything – sound, light, color, scent – and I cannot marshal my thoughts into any semblance of order. The experience is profoundly disorienting, which leads to panic. My world shrinks and I feel too large within it. I generally want to flee wherever I am.
Sometimes I dissociate. Things feel unreal and my body untethered, as if I can’t feel myself walking on solid ground, or taking up space in a room. Once, I was triggered during the screening of a movie with a rape scene in it. The scene unfolded before me, and I thought to myself, “I wonder if I should take up knitting?” I was so unable to process what was happening that I ceased to feel anything – I was a walking shell of myself, and interacting with the world felt like something I had to do through layers and layers of thick cotton. Dissociation can last moments, or it can last days.
Sometimes I get flashbacks. Flashbacks are, for me, the things that make me feel the most objectively out of my mind. I am at once in the present and in the moment of trauma. I can smell, hear, taste, and feel what it was to be in that traumatic moment down to the temperature of the room, or the feel of a breeze on my face. Flashbacks are often terrifying because of the loss of self involved, the realization that a thing feels real and yet isn’t, the re-experiencing of pain. In recent years flashbacks have receded for me into something I can identify right away as a trick of my brain, and I’m able to stand within my memories and observe them without losing myself. That is the product of years of therapy, and not everyone is lucky enough to access to such a resource.
Sometimes sight and sound fracture. My understanding of the world becomes like a film reel where pictures have slowed to individual stills, and the soundtrack to the moment doesn’t match what I’m seeing. I cannot process time or distance; objects do not have permanence. I panic. I freeze, unable to risk movement lest I fall.
Sometimes I am hyper-vigilant. I never expected the moments of my trauma; I presume, therefore, that I cannot predict when the next bad thing will happen. My brain scans constantly for danger, even in situations where I am objectively safe. My body is primed to fight or flee, so I am always on the edge of an adrenaline rush, my heart-rate elevated, my muscles tensed.
Sometimes, because of all of this, I am very, very tired.
These are the primary ways in which I experience PTSD. My experience is not definitive – no single experience is – but the broad strokes of it are typical.
Given this, how is a student experiencing any of this supposed to learn? Being triggered robs you of the capacity to think clearly. It throws you into a maelstrom of emotional and physical responses. If you are not triggered, your experience of the classroom is so different from that of the person triggered that you are functionally in a wholly separate space.
Which is where we come back to warnings.
We survivors are adept at managing our situation. We know how to protect ourselves, how to weather these sleights of cognitive function, how to recover. But we cannot deploy our arsenal of resources against triggering material if we don’t know that it’s coming. A warning is a heads up that I need to prepare to handle something. I’m able to choose from among the tools at my disposal to move through the situation with awareness. Sometimes I can even do it with grace.
What we need is an acknowledgement of our situation, which is tantamount to a line on a syllabus by a given day’s reading. The refusal to do this is not doing us a favor, or enabling us to live in “the real world.” (Where do you imagine we were traumatized in the first place?) It is, instead, the display of a stunning lack of empathy, and I know we can do better.