Triggers aren’t always rational concepts

Sometimes people talk about triggers as though as though being triggered means having an extreme reaction to something that it’s perfectly normal for most people to find upsetting.

Some triggers are like that. A lot of them are not.

Triggers can be things that make no apparent sense at all from the outside. They can be anything. For instance, someone might find teddy bears triggering. Or being spoken to in a reassuring tone of voice. Or a certain song. Or wearing a t-shirt.

They are not necessarily about concepts.

Having trauma-related triggers does not necessarily mean that someone will have an unusual amount of difficulty discussing upsetting topics.

Discussing the concept of abuse or the particular kind of trauma they experienced *might* be triggering, but it might not be.

For instance, someone might be triggered by the smell of popcorn, but comfortable discussing abuse and abuse prevention policy. Or any number of other combinations.

Knowing that someone has experienced trauma doesn’t mean that you know anything else about them. Not everyone who has experienced trauma gets triggered. People who do get triggered, get triggered by a range of different things. You generally are not going to be in a position to know this kind of thing about someone else unless they tell you.

Short version: Trauma-related triggers can be just about anything. They’re not necessarily conceptually related to difficult or politically charged topics. Some people who have triggers aren’t triggered by discussing the relevant concepts, but are triggered by otherwise-innocuous things they associate with their experiences. Trauma can be complicated and doesn’t always fit with the prevailing cultural narrative.

Learning about other cultures sometimes means listening to survivors

I want to learn more about other cultures. I started bc i am a writer and realized my writing was inexcusably non-diverse, but found I wanted to keep on because I find it really interesting. There’s a problem though. I grew up in an abusive family. Seems like many of the cultures I’m learning about place more emphasis than mine on loyalty to family and respect for elders – something that, when I read about it, I find REALLY triggering. How can i learn when i keep getting panic attacks?
realsocialskills said:
I think the problem might be that you are reading the perspectives of people who aren’t talking about abuse, particularly if what you’re reading is apologetic narratives aimed at presenting a culture to those outside it. Those kinds of narratives don’t have a lot of space to acknowledge that abuse is common, wrong, and needs to be addressed. I suspect that you would find similar writing about your own culture equally triggering.
Maybe what’s triggering you is the feeling like there is no voice for survivors and no way to respond to abuse?
If that’s the problem, I think the solution is to seek out the voices of survivors within the culture you are trying to learn about. What do they say about their culture? How are they addressing abuse? How do their culture’s concepts of family play into that?
Whatever culture you are learning about, there will be people within it who are seeking responses to abuse within their own culture on the terms of their culture. I think that, for you, learning about other cultures probably needs to involve listening to those survivors.

Some thoughts on PTSD at school

I developed PTSD last year and took time off college, and I’m about to go back for the first time since then. I’ve been auditing classes for a few months now though and I’m suddenly terrified. I can barely read anymore (I can’t focus and it’s often panic inducing). I dissociate in class and sometimes even have highly humiliating episodes in lectures. I never retain anything and it feels futile and I’m afraid I’m gonna flunk out. If you have any advice I would appreciate it so much. Thank you!!
realsocialskills answered:
Since I don’t know you, all I can do is guess – but here are a couple of possibilities that comes to mind:
Do you find evaluation triggering? Like, tests, quizzes, papers, things where you have to prove that you mastered the material? Or knowing that you’re being graded?
If so, I wonder if maybe a full course load might be too much for you right now. Being terrified is exhausting and time consuming. So is dealing with being triggered a lot. That plus a full course load might be taking up more time than you have.
It might be better to start by only taking one course for credit. That could give you space to work on figuring out what’s triggering and how to deal with it.
Another possibility: If you’re missing material because you dissociate in class, you might be able to get a notetaker as a disability accommodation. Or you might try recording the lectures (which is a disability accommodation you can get even if recording isn’t normally allowed). Similarly, if you find a particular *kind* of assessment triggering, you might be able to arrange a modified form (eg: if taking a quiz in-class causes you to dissociate, you might be able to arrange to do a take-home instead.)
You might also try collaborative note taking:
  • It’s a good strategy for anyone to try who is having trouble paying attention in lecture
  • But it might also be helpful for you if your episodes are the kind someone can help you avert if you see one coming on
  • Because then you’d already be communicating with your notetaking partner, so if you see a problem coming it might give your the opportunity to get help
Another possibility: Are you dealing with a triggering or cognitively incompatible teacher?
  • For some people, teachers who teach in certain ways can be triggering
  • Or can be so hard to understand that they exhaust you in ways that take away the cognitive abilities you need to do school
  • Or can be hostile to you in subtle but intensely destructive ways
  • Or any number of other serious points of incompatibility
  • If you’re having a debilitating reaction to a particular teacher, it’s probably really important to not take classes with that teacher, even if it looks like a good idea on paper

(There’s a range of different things that work for different people, so it would also be good to seek out different perspectives.)

When people disagree about painful things

Hi! I really like your post ‘don’t tell me my pain is beautiful.’ However I have a slight problem with ‘I think you’re wrong.’ Because oppression is so personally triggering it’s problematic for people to ‘disagree’ and follow with ‘devils advocate.’
realsocialskills answered:
I’m not talking about “devil’s advocate” or any of that kind of thing. I agree that devil’s advocate is a horrible thing to do. Or otherwise treating it as a game or an opportunity for debate practice.
It’s not ok to treat things as a rhetoric context unless everyone involved consents to that. But substantive disagreement is a different thing.
I’m talking about when people actually disagree, for actual reasons. When they’re listening, taking the content seriously, and finding a significant point of disagreement that they think is worth mentioning.
(It’s important to be careful about this, and something being “just your opinion” doesn’t mean that others are bound to respect it. And there are times when you will rightfully be slammed for condescending to people on a topic you’re not informed about. Substantive disagreement is a different thing).
Someone being in pain doesn’t necessarily mean they are right, especially when they are advocating something specific. Finding disagreement triggering also doesn’t mean that the person getting triggered is right.
There are people I block because their comments to some of my entries are triggering for me in ways I can’t handle constructively. That doesn’t mean that I’m right, or that they should stop saying what they think. (I think they’re wrong and that they should change their views, but that’s a separate issue.)
Some things that are really important to talk about are also excruciating. That doesn’t mean that no one can or should disagree with anyone who is suffering.

Telling people you’re triggered by something?

boywoof said:

if youre comfortable, telling the person those things upset you (w/o guilting them for having emotions) could make it easier for you to work around it, maybe w/ their help

Yes, there are situations in which talking to them could be helpful; sometimes it is possible to work out things everyone involved can do to make things work.

It’s definitely important to acknowledge that the solution can’t be for that person to just stop being angry or depressed. It doesn’t work that way.

That said – I think that telling someone you’re being triggered by something they do is inherently likely to result in them feeling guilty. In particular if it’s something that they don’t much like about themselves.

There isn’t any way of bringing up this kind of problem that can reliably avoid the other person feeling guilty or ashamed. So, if they feel really guilty, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve done something wrong in bringing it up.

Boundaries when anger issues come from being triggered

rosewhite6280 said:

Some people with anger problems do so because they themselves are being triggered. Help them deal with their past problem; compassion helps.

That’s good advice in some situations, but I don’t think it’s applicable in the situation they asked about. I think what you’re saying makes a lot of sense in situations in which you’re responsible for another person’s physical and emotional wellbeing. For instance, if you’re raising a kid, or working with a kid who has been through traumatic things, the first thing to keep in mind is that they’re doing things for reasons and that compassion goes a long way.

But you can’t have that relationship with every traumatized person you encounter. It’s not appropriate with a roommate.

And that person was asking specially about what to do about the fact that they are triggered by their roommate’s depression and anger. It was a question about how to make a living situation work, not a question about how to make a support relationship work.

Getting involved enough to help someone deal with their past problem is a completely different kind of relationship than they were asking about. And there’s no indication that either they or their roommate wants that.

And, when you are triggered by someone even at a relatively distant relationship, it’s generally not a good idea to establish an even closer relationship with that person.

Their roommate’s past is not their problem, and helping their roommate get over their past is not their responsibility.

Being triggered by anger and roommates’ emotional states

Hi. I’m triggered by outbursts of anger and by people being majorly depressed around me. My roommate has outbursts of anger and major depression. Help?
My first thought is that you’re probably not compatible roommates. Living with that person probably means you’re inevitably going to get triggered by them a lot, which isn’t good for either of you.
That said, it might depend on how being triggered works for you:
  • Some people can learn to detect when something is about to become triggering and avert it.
  • It might be possible for you to do things like figure out which kinds of contact with your roommate are triggering, detect when it’s about to happen, and extract yourself
  • For instance, if it’s about seeing facial expressions your roommate makes when they’re angry, it might work to leave the room when things are getting too close to the edge
  • But not everyone’s triggers work this way.
  • It may not be possible to find ways to avoid being triggered while still living with someone who does a lot of triggering things
  • If that’s how it is, it’s not a personal failing, it just means you probably can’t safely live together.
  • Not everyone is compatible, and that’s ok

It also might depend on how often it happens, and what the consequences are:

  • If it’s infrequent, it might be bearable. Depending on how that is for you personally
  • It also depends on what kind of trigger it is, and how you feel about it
  • Like, if it’s the kind of trigger where you have to spend an hour freaking out and convincing yourself that you’re safe, you might decide that that’s bearable
  • It’s totally ok to decide that being regularly triggered in that way is deal-breaking, though. Either is ok, it’s a matter of what you want
  • If it’s the kind of trigger where you spend a week fighting suicidal feelings, it’s probably really important to get out of that living situation as soon as possible

Aside from what to do in the roommate situation, some thoughts about being triggered by anger:

  • Anger is a particularly difficult trigger to deal with
  • Because anger is an inevitable part of just about every relationship ever
  • Sometimes people will be justifiably angry at you, and have a legitimate need to express it
  • And sometimes you have to deal with the thing they’re angry about even though you get triggered by the anger
  • Even though it’s not your fault, even though you can’t avoid getting triggered
  • The underlying thing they’re angry about still has to be dealt with
  • Getting triggered by things people can’t reasonably avoid doing is really awful

Further thoughts about anger:

  • Having to deal with anger sometimes doesn’t mean that you can’t ever avoid it
  • Sometimes people have a legitimate need to express anger about something you’ve done, but most ways you’re likely to encounter anger in your day-to-day life aren’t like that
  • Not all anger has anything to do with you, and when you’re not the person someone is angry at, it’s usually reasonable to avoid engaging with anger
  • For instance, it’s ok if you don’t want people to vent to you when they’re angry at someone else or angry about politics
  • And it’s ok to avoid watching angry movies or following angry blogs
  • Or to block angry bloggers who trigger you, even if they’re good people who you respect
  • Or to use tumblr savior or xkit to block tags etc that are mostly people being angry
  • Or to decide not to spend time with people who get angry with you over minor things
  • Or to decide not to spend time around people who are frequently angry or appear angry much of the time
  • In particular, you might be better off not sharing living space with someone who gets angry a lot

I’m not sure what else to suggest. Do any of y’all have thoughts?

Noticing when someone is using your triggers to disorient and confuse you

When someone is using your triggers to disorient and confuse you, it’s confusing. It can take a long time to figure out what’s going on.

Here are some things I think are red flags:

If someone seems to like you more when you’re triggered than when you’re in control, something is seriously wrong

  • For instance, if a therapist only listens to you when you’re sobbing and otherwise acts as though you couldn’t possibly understand anything about yourself
  • Or when a friend suddenly finds you fascinating when you’re triggered and they’re supporting you through it, but they half-ignore you most of the rest of the time

If someone feels entitled to discuss triggering subjects with you (absent an immediate practical reason to), something is seriously wrong:

  • For instance, if you say that you’d rather not discuss dogs right now because it’s triggering and you’re close to the edge already, and they say “but I thought we were friends! How can you shut me out like that?”
  • Or if a therapist tells you that you’ll never get better unless you are willing to discuss once again, in graphic terms, the ways people abused you – and they refuse to say, help you figure out whether the medication you are taking is working, or whether the side effects are dangerous, unless you do this over and over

If you end up triggered every time you try to reject personal advice, something is seriously wrong:

  • For instance, if someone regularly wants to tell you how to dress, and every time you try to wear something different, they push you until you end up sobbing and apologizing, something is wrong
  • This is particularly the case if they’re always bringing triggering things into a conversation that didn’t need to have anything to do with them
  • Your desire to wear a red hat rather than the blue on they want you to wear is probably because you want to wear a red hat
  • It’s very unlikely that it’s because you have no perspective on clothes because your abusers damaged you
  • And even if that was the reason, it would still be ok for you to prefer a red hat, and wrong for someone to try to force you to wear a blue one by triggering you