Early in my first daughter’s life, I vividly remember rocking her as she cried and whispering, “Don’t be sad, my girl, I don’t want you to ever be sad.” The sentiment seemed natural enough, but hearing the words out loud made me stop and think: was that true? Did I want her never to experience sadness? Never to suffer? Almost immediately, I concluded—somewhat counterintuitively—that the answer was no. It seemed unlikely that a life devoid of any suffering or discomfort was a recipe for goodness, or even happiness.
Suffering and the lengths to which we should go to avoid it (or protect our children from it) are at the crux of an ongoing debate in American culture. The 2010s were marked by a growing cultural awareness of the ways that seemingly innocuous things can inflict harm. Today’s youth are arguably more in touch with their mental and emotional pressure points—or triggers—than any previous generation.
Clinically speaking, the term “trigger” refers to any psychological stimulus that prompts—or triggers—recall of a previous traumatic experience. But the term has been adopted in the American vernacular to refer more broadly to anything that elicits negative emotions. In that sense, triggers are universal—we’ve all got them, though their type and severity vary widely.
As trigger-awareness has grown, there’s been considerable debate regarding how we ought to manage them. For example, Americans can’t seem to agree on whether trigger warnings, which have become common practice on college campuses, and have even made their way into the theater, are actually helpful. Their purpose is to forewarn students (or theater-goers) of material deemed likely to elicit a strong emotional response, thereby granting them the option to avoid it or at least be prepared to consume potentially upsetting material.
Dr. Onni Gust, a historian at the University of Nottingham, defended her use of trigger warnings in the classroom, claiming that they “signal to survivors of abuse or trauma that they need to keep breathing” and remind them to be “particularly aware of the skills and coping strategies that they have developed and to switch them on.” Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that trigger warnings have very little impact on the distress they are intended to mitigate.
In a sweeping 2015 article in The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that trigger warnings are just one small part of a broader cultural “vindictive protectiveness,” which encourages young people to avoid anything that might upset them. This, he argues, is not only bad for education, but bad for mental health. “According to the most-basic tenets of psychology,” he argues, “the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.”
There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that trigger avoidance comes at a steep cost. It requires limiting the conversations you have, people you interact with, books you read and media you consume to those that are unlikely to trigger you. Complete trigger avoidance can be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Assuming you succeed, the universe in which you operate can quickly become very small, and preserving it exhausting. In these ways, insulating yourself from everything that makes you upset or uncomfortable can itself become upsetting and uncomfortable.
It is for this reason, according to Dr. Teresa Gil, a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma, that psychologists do not encourage patients suffering from PTSD to avoid their triggers outright. “It is impossible to live a full and engaged life while simultaneously avoiding experiences that may potentially trigger flashbacks,” she explained to me.
In fact, most of her clients come to her because a particular traumatic incident is limiting their ability to “feel fully alive and engaged in the world and with others. They have an understanding that by not facing the past they are being held hostage to the traumatic experience.” The goal of treatment, she explained, is to “increase one’s ability to manage the challenging experiences that life presents.” Dr. Gil provided an example of how this treatment works:
“One of my clients, Angela, came into the session and said she felt ‘out of control.’ Angela felt overwhelmed because she was having strong feelings and no context or reason to explain her experience. Rather than avoiding her feelings, we explored her feelings in more depth. Angela’s “roller-coaster ride” of distressing feelings was triggered by the thoughts of going home to visit the family for Thanksgiving.” Dr. Gil explained that Angela comes from a large extended family, in which reunions often involved excessive drinking that led to inappropriate and aggressive interactions, and even physical violence. It was at one such occasion that her older cousin molested her. “Once we were able to name the event and the trigger, Angela and I were able to understand the anxiety, depression, and periods of anger she was experiencing about going home to visit her family.” From there, they worked together to create a plan to ensure she felt safe during the visit: setting a strict time limit, plan for departure, and preemptively prioritizing time with her nieces, sister, and grandmother. “By facing her triggers,” Dr. Gil explained, “Angela was able to manage and to some extent overcome the barriers and triggers that were undermining her sense of well-being.”
The same reasoning might easily apply to the lower level triggers those of us without PTSD experience in everyday life. Trigger avoidance very literally puts you at the mercy of your surroundings. Learning to deal with triggering circumstances, concepts, or conversations requires you to resume responsibility—yes—but also allows you to regain command of your own life.
Facing our triggers can make them less triggering
It’s worth pointing out that by facing our triggers, they may over time become less triggering. This is the reasoning that underpins the widespread use of exposure therapy to treat phobias. Jonathan Haidt explains that the appropriate treatment for someone with a fear of elevators is not to help her avoid them, but to incrementally expose her to elevators until a more positive association is restored. “This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.” Haidt applies the same reasoning to PTSD, explaining that “students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation.”
Again, the same reasoning might apply to the rest of us. The metaphor of life being a marathon may be overused, but it applies well here. Running 26 miles would likely be painful, if not impossible, for the untrained body. But with training, it becomes manageable. The problem is that the only way to train for a marathon is to do the very thing you are poorly equipped to do: run increasingly long distances. Only by doing so can the marathoner prepare herself to handle a distance she once couldn’t. So it is with triggers. Choosing to face the things that make us uncomfortable and upset can help us to develop resilience against them. Words, topics, terms that once set us off can lose their power to do so, not because anything about them changes, but because we do.
This isn’t to say we ought to recklessly confront all the things that upset us. Depending on the circumstances, recognizing and avoiding triggers may indeed be the best course of action. But it doesn’t always have to be. Much like you can deal with cold weather by either staying indoors, or by donning a coat and venturing outside, you can either avoid your triggers outright, or choose instead to make appropriate preparations and “face” them. In either case, no one would blame you for taking the former path, but there are benefits to taking the less comfortable route.
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