Trigger Warnings

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Trigger Warnings

Panel 1

[Image] A woman with long dark hair, viewed in profile. She is sitting at a desk, pen in hand. She is smiling.

[Caption] It happened a lot…

Panel 2

[Image] The same woman, at a desk. She looks afraid, and her hand is covering her mouth. The whole panel is tinted slightly darker.

[Caption] Especially at school…

Panel 3

[Image] The woman sitting her desk. Her head is in her hand, which is leaning on the desk. She looks miserable. The panel is tinted dark.

[Caption] And I couldn’t learn.

Panel 4

[Image] The woman sitting at a desk writing on a piece of lined paper. She looks apprehensive, and is shielding her face with her non-writing hand. The rest of the room is filled with silhouettes at other desks, a couple of whom are throwing paper airplanes.

[Caption] I have a phobic relationship with graphic violence. I t made it difficult to learn in class. On a few occasions, I desperately needed to distract myself. I wasn’t bored. I was scared.

Panel 5

[Image] A blonde woman with short hair, waving her hand. She looks unimpressed.

[Caption] Once, I told my teacher.

Blonde woman: I’ve seen how films can affect students. My own son gets really sad too.

Thought bubble: I’m not sad. I’m SCARED.

Panel 6

[Image] A man, looking confused. His hands are raised in a shrugging motion.

[Caption] When I confided to a friend:

Man: You’re over-reacting. Just forget about it.

Thought bubble: I can’t just forget.

Panel 7

[Image] The long-haired woman, facing the reader but looking down. She is wearing a backpack and holding a notebook close to her chest. She looks very upset. Behind her, three students are smiling and waving at each other.

[Caption] I was ashamed of myself. If what I had wasn’t a “real” disease, it was nothing. But this nothing ruled big parts of my life. I planned my entire day around it. It shut me down from learning.

Panel 8

[Image] Three pills – two circular, and one oblong.

[Caption] Now that I’m older, I’m medicated.

Panel 9

[Image] A movie poster under the heading NOW SHOWING. The poster has four panels, each with a different man’s face. All four faces look concerned. Next to the poster is a smaller poster which says “WARNING: Contains graphic violence.”

[Caption] But graphic images can still cause panic attacks. This is why trigger warnings are important to me.

Panel 10

[Caption] But some teachers fight back, saying that trigger warnings limit their ability to challenge students.

Panel 11

[Image] The woman, curled up in her desk chair, her knees drawn up to her chest, and her hands over her face. Her eyes are closed in a grimace. The desks and other students in the room are silhouettes with jagged, irregular edges.

[Caption] I’m not being challenged when I see graphic images. When I have a panic attack, I’m not uncomfortable. I’m dealing with a mental disorder. One that is more common than many teachers think. An inability to see this shames us into silence.

Panel 12

[Image] A reproduction of the first panel: the woman sitting straight in her chair, smiling, pen in hand.

[Caption] I want to learn about human suffering. I want to be challenged. I just want to circumnavigate specific visual teaching materials. I think I can learn about human injustice without having to look at dead mutilated things.

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Full story

I’m a strange case, without a doubt. I’m sensitive to visual stimuli. For example, during a tour of old slums in Edinburgh, we saw a flickery candlelit room with fake bodies in burlap bags to portray the results of the black plague. I fainted. I was eleven years old. For months afterward, I slept with the lights on, wondering what had happened and what was wrong with me.

Yes, now that I’m older, I’m medicated. I’m on antidepressants and they help me. But I still maintain a phobic relationship with images that are gory in nature. I overreact, and I am crazy. There’s no question about those things for me now. But it wasn’t something I could control. I was just trying to keep my mind, and I was only eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. I was shameful of my fears, of my abnormal reactions to things that didn’t seem to bother other students at all.

I had many experiences in succession through my adolescence—watching documentaries and fictional films about massacres caused a deep disturbance in me that I did not recognize in my fellow classmates. While they watched on, indifferent, sad, scornful, I stared at my notebook, my head reeling. Reeling is the perfect word to describe the state—the fear sent my head freewheeling, rearing back, in defense yet defenseless.

I learned that for the sake of my sanity it was better to keep my eyes down on the desk, but I still heard everything in class. I couldn’t stop my imagination though. I should have left the room. But there was something about getting up and walking out that felt wrong. On a few occasions, I doodled in the back of the classroom while mutilation flickered on the screen at the front. I wasn’t bored—I was trying to focus on something else so I wouldn’t be deeply disturbed.

Once, it clicked with me that if I respected myself at all I would tell the teacher that I couldn’t watch. So I waited until after class, built up some courage, and asked her.

“I’ve seen how graphic movies can affect students through my own son. I remember him coming home after some things that had just made him so sad. Some kids are devastated. Emotionally overwrought” she said. These were the emotions she could see. They were certainly valid. But they were not mine.

“I’m hearing a lot about sadness,” I said. “But did you ever see fear?” She looked me in the eyes for a few moments.


I once told a friend. “You’re overreacting.” he said. He told me to quit diagnosing myself from the internet and just try to forget about it. His dismissive response further instilled in me a sense of shame. If what I had wasn’t a real disease, then it was nothing. But this “nothing” ruled big parts of my life. I had strange rituals to get myself to sleep. I avoided all reminders of subjects related to what had disturbed me. This turned me off of homework for months for history and English classes. It shut me down to learning. This “nothing” was something I couldn’t talk about, because I was either overreacting, or really, really crazy.
I have seen and felt the stigma against “crazy” carried out at school through my entire education. At school, our minds are very valuable, perhaps the most valuable thing students are considered to have. When something’s amiss up there, it’s not hard to see why a school would be intolerant, even if it wasn’t conscious of it.
“Trigger warnings” is an idea that has been thrown around in the academic world since I’ve been a part of it. Many higher education institutions are starting to develop policies around triggers, mandating that a warning must be given before showing or discussing anything in class that could aggravate a student. There are blanket trigger warning rules for topics like rape, other sorts of violence, and racism.

There is pushback against trigger warnings that demonstrates just how little academic faculty “get it.” They have asserted that trigger warnings threaten their freedom to teach what they think is important, and what they think the nature of an education should be. Teachers think they need to make students feel uncomfortable, that delving deep into difficult topics is central to a modern education.

Well yeah, duh. We should be learning about racism, sexualized violence, and other kinds of violence. It’s important to show the younger generation how much that kind of stuff sucks to ensure that fewer of them perpetrate it in the future. But when I’m having a panic attack in the back of a classroom because I saw some mutilated horrible thing, I’m not uncomfortable. I’m having a real, legitimate, reaction associated with a real, legitimate mental disorder that doesn’t fall into the realm of normal human behavior but is incredibly common nonetheless.

I don’t suggest we have a blanket rule to warn students before discussing paperclips, just because one person might be disturbed. That would be impractical. But triggers are often very specific and unique to a student, and don’t necessarily always “make sense.”

They’re still valid though.

I want to learn about difficult topics in human history. I just want to circumnavigate very, very, small, specific visual teaching materials. I think I can learn about human injustice fairly thoroughly without having to look at dead mutilated things.

My vivid imagination is enough, thanks.

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2 responses to “Trigger Warnings”

  1. Devin Parker says: |
    September 29, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    I’ve seen some of the pushback to trigger warnings on geek-related web forums. The people who complain about it cite everything from “political correctness run amok” (the phrase so trite someone should trademark it) and “oversensitivity” to “censorship.” But, as with many things, I think the problem is that they simply aren’t aware of the reasons why trigger warnings are a necessity in the first place. I prefer to *think* that’s the case, anyway… 😉

    In instances where I’ve heard people suggesting trigger warnings, usually the reason given were related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: people who had survived combat or rape, who might be “triggered” by certain content. But until now I’ve never read about anyone having this as a result of a disorder they may have been born with or had from very young. So this is an eye-opener for me.

    The nearest thing I can think of to help me relate is that I have a physical reaction when the topic of biology comes up, explained in a degree of detail. When someone starts describing how parts of the body work, I begin to feel sick to my stomach. I tend toward fainting when I have blood drawn, not because of the needle but because of the thought/feeling of my blood pumping out. It’s an awful feeling, being on the verge of blacking out. A nurse once explained to me that it’s a physiological reaction of some sort – her husband had the same problem – and not the result of “squeamishness.” I know that this probably isn’t the same thing as the author’s problem, but I think it helps me to understand better.

    Is there a site anywhere where some of the more common trigger warnings are listed? I’ll Google it, but I wonder if anyone has a recommended site.

  2. Ruthie says: |
    August 2, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    I think teachers should absolutely make accommodations for students triggers. It is painful and uncomfortable and can really stifle student’s learning. However, because triggers are so individualized–even something normal or innocuous can be a really upsetting trigger for a person–I tend to believe that instead of teachers listing blanket trigger warnings, the student with the trigger should (on the first day of class) talk to the teacher about those triggers and the teacher should then make accommodations for that student (warning about upcoming material that contains that trigger, allowing the student to not view that material, offering alternative assignments, etc). This does mean that the teachers need to take these triggers seriously and be willing to make accommodations. But really, this is the same as any sort of needs accommodation a teacher should make–such as a deaf student being given an interpreter or students with motor difficulties being assigned note-takers.

    As someone who has panic attacks, but not specific triggers, I can understand the sick feeling that comes with it, but accommodations for me are often different than would be required by someone with a specific trigger.From people who do have specific triggers–is this approach fair? I don’t want to put too much burden on people who are suffering, but I also want to make sure that the most effective methods are taken to help the most people.

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