Trigger Warnings, Pavlov, And Being Kind to Yourself

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m not a therapist. There are problems and issues that require someone who is really trained in helping people, not a dabbler like myself.

And I’m going to crib the second obvious thing here: I’m not talking about exposure therapy or anything like that. To crib from Jim Hines:

Exposure Therapy and Systematic Desensitization are processes. They’re done in a controlled environment, with preparation and planning, which includes letting the patient know what’s coming. I.e., giving them a warning.

And finally, trigger warnings are not censorship and do not interfere with mental health (quite the opposite, IMHO). 

We good with that?

Okay. Let’s begin.

I’ve been thinking a lot about triggers and trigger warnings lately. For some reason, I’ve been running into a number of people I know who have some kind of trigger.

Sometimes the trigger is severe enough to cause him to curl up in bed and cry. Sometimes it’s just strong enough to ruin an evening.

Sadly, most of the people I’ve met with these triggers blame themselves. They think they’re “just” overreacting. They think they’re foolish. They see it as some kind of fundamental flaw in themselves.

Which is so much bullshit.

Triggers – as we generally understand them – are associated with some kind of traumatic or painful event. They may or may not be explicitly connected to the event. As Jim points out, Wreck-It Ralph has a great example of one that’s actually connected to a pleasant phrase.

And pretty much universally, it’s something that is done to the person who develops the trigger. It’s not their fault. And it is a perfectly reasonable response to the situation that created the trigger.

I’ll use myself as an example of a very minor trigger. My oldest son (the one I usually don’t talk about) and I ended up creating a series of interactions where I would routinely become extremely stressed and upset. Afterward, just the mention of him or anything I associated with him would cause those same physical symptoms to manifest.

And it’s not my fault that reaction exists. If you have a similar kind of trigger – or something stronger – it’s not your fault.

Be kind to yourself. Know that the reactions you have were appropriate for a certain time and place. And all you’re doing now is trying to figure out how to manage those reactions and minimize the impact they’re having on your life.

If it’s something strong enough that it totally disrupts your life, I highly recommend finding a therapist. I’m not one, as mentioned.

If it’s something that just gets in the way, like that stress response of mine, be aware of it. Expect it.

When you know that you have a reaction from certain stimuli, then you can start to figure ways to work with or around it. (And again, if you’re having difficulty with this, professional help is highly encouraged.)

And remember: Be kind to yourself. The reaction that was instilled in you is not your fault. You’ve got work to do to mitigate that reaction, and beating yourself up about it isn’t going to help.

Good luck – and remember, if you’re having difficulty, find professional help in your area.

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