Tonight I went to see a performance evening with one of my favourite authors of all time, Neil Gaiman. I’m calling it a performance evening instead of a ‘reading’, because apart from reading stories from his latest book, there was also a string quartet, there was poetry with soundscapes in the background, and there was unexpected, but delightful singing. It was truly an evening to remember.
Gaiman’s latest book is titled Trigger Warning, and it is a collection of… things, mostly short stories and ‘disturbances’. And the title refers exactly to what you think it might be referring to:
“There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corridors of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.”
The concept of a trigger (or “trauma reminder”) is fairly common in psychology, particularly in relation to trauma – an event in one’s life so distressing or terrifying, that it causes a psychological injury. The symptoms of a trauma include physical responses, such as disturbed sleep; troubled thoughts, including nightmares, memory problems, flashbacks; behavioural changes, such as avoiding certain places or withdrawing from other people; and emotional symptoms, such as anxiety, guilt, and depression.
The good news about traumas is that they usually do not last – most people are able to move on after a distressing event, and with time and appropriate support the symptoms fade and life returns to a more normal, calm state.
But the human brain also stores a vast amount of memories, and you can’t simply toss them out at will. Hence a trauma reminder can be anything – whatever triggers a memory or a feeling connected to a past trauma. This happens most often because a sensory memory – somehow linked to what occurred during the distressing event – makes negative feelings bubble up before a person realises the cause of the upset.
And thus, anything can become a trigger. If a person is attacked in a library after hours, the sight of narrow aisles between bookshelves may cause them to panic. It could be a song one was listening to when they got into a car crash. Smell memories form powerful trauma reminders as well, as does touch and taste to a lesser extent.
Trigger warnings and content warnings have emerged as a means to spare people people painful memories, but it is not entirely clear whether avoiding trauma reminders actually helps a person get over the trauma. Instead, exposure to the trigger may give an opportunity for the person to not only recognise what sets them off, but also take charge and learn to deal with the trigger appropriately.
Ultimately, triggers can become a part of the healing process.