Why Trigger Warnings Matter for Those With PTSD
I’m writing about something that strips away my layers and makes me feel raw and vulnerable. I’m working on embracing these feelings and so even though all the alarms are sounding off in my head to keep quiet, I’m not going to. I have a feeling that a few people will want to know why I’m posting something so personal and that I should keep it private.
That right there.
That element of shame.
That’s why I’m talking. Because if I would’ve spoken up sooner then maybe this wouldn’t be my story and maybe these words will let you know that you, alone, can’t carry the burden of your traumas.
Nor should you.
This isn’t a post where I’m rehashing my trauma, but simply what happens when I’m forced to relive it. I think I’m tired of suffering in silence and I think I’m tired of hiding the darkness inside. This post is raw and real and I think it needs its own TRIGGER WARNING because these words won’t be for everyone. But if they are for you then I hope they help because I think they’ve helped me.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whole idea of triggers and trigger warnings. After all, we live in an online world and have all the information at our fingertips. Not just information but stories. And there is so much power in telling and listening to each other’s stories. But truthfully there’s also pain. Especially when a story brings up emotions or memories that we are either not prepared to deal with or we have purposefully suppressed.
Enter “trigger warnings.”
I see these on a lot of sites — especially blogs — where individuals are sharing past experiences. Past traumatic experiences. In fact, I see it so often that I feel like one could begin to just roll their eyes at this overused terminology and gloss over these oh so important words.
Trigger. Warning. Let me tell you, as a person who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I hold onto these warnings like I hold onto the Gospel. The part that is hard about participating in an online world is being able to read or watch or relive someone’s trauma is, well, traumatizing. Especially when you are recovering from one or more traumatic events.
It is also hard to live in a real life world where you can be minding your own business, living your own life, and a trigger unexpectedly and rudely takes hold of you. Something as simple as a book — that has nothing to do with you or your trauma mind you — can be a trigger. In fact, that happened to me recently. I was reading the loveliest book and all of a sudden I found myself gone. What does that mean? I don’t know if everyone with PTSD who finds themselves suddenly taken back to unpleasant memories feels this way, but I will attempt to describe what it physically and mentally feels like to be triggered.
My eyes sting and burn with the threat of tears but I can’t actually cry. My stomach is in knots and I’m pushing down the unpleasant nausea that follows. My chest begins to feel like it itches from the inside and it is heavy. Ugh. It is so heavy. Like I can’t take a deep breath in. In fact, I can’t breathe at all. My arms and legs become heavier than lead weights. They want to move me but I can’t seem to connect my brain to my extremities and so I find myself frozen in place. I feel the urge to open my mouth but nothing comes out. I don’t even think my lips part. My mood becomes somber and I just get this overall feeling of dread. The only thing that seems doable is finding somewhere to lay down and hide.
Usually I want to go to my room and be alone, but I don’t want anyone to know that I’m there or that I’m falling apart and yet at the same time I crave another human’s presence to hold onto me and tell me I am safe and it’s all OK. Usually that other human I crave is my husband and usually he doesn’t know that I’m breaking. Hello, shame.
I just end up sitting wherever I landed. Feeling completely and absolutely abandoned because there’s nowhere to go and no one to turn to. If I’m being honest I think I disassociate from where I am. I feel like I’ve left my body and my reality and I curse myself for reacting this way. My mind is transported back to a fight or flight but apparently my limbic system does a “shut down and freak out” instead of anything helpful.
Once I am triggered I have these feelings for anywhere from minutes to hours to days. My mind can’t let go and my body can’t move.It’s pretty unpleasant. I’ve been in counseling for 15 years and while I have narrowed my triggers down from about 20 different things to three, when one or all of the three sneak up uninvited, it’s overwhelming. Before I knew what was happening, before I recognized this response as a trigger response, it terrified me. When you spend all your time repressing traumatic memories and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, in the least convenient place, it all comes flooding back taking you with it, it tends to send a chill down your spine.
I was just reading. I wasn’t expecting to be thrown into the middle of an anxious meltdown. It’s not how I planned to spend my week. The book had no trigger warnings. There were no hints that this was coming until I was already reading it and then my eyes couldn’t turn away because I was frozen. But they could still move through the words and my brain could still comprehend. And it hurt to read but I read it.
So why am I telling you this? Because maybe you know someone with PTSD. And maybe you’ve seen them be fine one second and then the next moment they’ve left you behind. And maybe they can’t tell you where they are or what they need. Maybe they don’t even know. And maybe you find yourself taking it personally. Like you’ve done something wrong. Like they’ve left you. And I can only imagine over time how that wears a person who loves someone with PTSD down. So I wanted to tell you where we go.
We slip back into whatever hellish trauma we’ve survived and we’re immobilized by it. We are at its mercy and all we can do is wait for it to pass. I mean my counselor has tried to give me coping skills to handle these situations. Like to tell myself that I’m safe and it’s not really happening again but it just doesn’t seem to help. The truth is I fight every day to feel any sense of security and when I find myself triggered it reminds me how very fragile the feeling of safety actually is. How very fragile being safe is.
I wish I could tell you how best to support someone who has PTSD, but I don’t think I can. I think that the support needed might depend on the person. For me, I don’t want to talk about it. I already can’t find my voice and it doesn’t feel safe to use it. I don’t want to explain myself and I don’t want to comfort the person who feels alienated by my involuntary visitation to the painful realm of trauma. But it is nice to have someone sit with me. Without saying a word. Without adding any extra burden to my already overburdened mind.
I found myself unexpectedly triggered and without the words to communicate that to my people and I thought maybe other warriors feel the same. While this shouldn’t be considered a guide for how to help someone struggling with PTSD, maybe it can serve as a starting point for how you can help them without putting extra work on their already overworked system.
Maybe you can just sit with them. Letting them know you are there and they are safe. And maybe one day they’ll believe you enough to tell you where they go when they leave and how you can help them find their way back to you and their ever elusive safe space.
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