Today I was in a class where a writing activity was proposed: identify a small minuscule event from winter break, write down your thoughts, and then tell it to the class remembering the emotion from that moment.
I was excited about this. The assignment to write about a smaller event took away any anxiety to speak about some grand adventure. I wrote about my favorite moment with the child I babysat. We went to a local playground and he started playing with a girl who didn’t speak English. I thought it was a sweet and beautiful moment. I love how children don’t care about human differences.
So, people began to go, telling story after story; one girl finished a video game, another baked for the first time, another admitted to almost being late to our first class because she was out shopping for donuts.
Then one student went and her story was shocking and triggering. There was no warning. I am not someone who is easily triggered but the story was told by her as if it were a passing, minuscule event. The story was told in far too graphic detail. I even had to turn my camera off and spend the next five minutes grounding myself. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. I was not crying. I was not filled with anxiety. I was just sad, and angry. It wasn’t something that sent me into an anxious episode, but it forced me to envision images of something that I did not want, or need, to see.
If a trigger warning had been issued, I would have muted my computer. Instead, the words freely floated into my ears. I had no opportunity to block it out, and as the details started to hit closer and closer to home, my thoughts never even went to muting. I paced back and forth in a fury, even stepping into my closet to stand in the darkness in hopes that the images would wash away.
They didn’t. The story left me with an image I had never wanted to see. It sparked within me thoughts I had never had. The storyteller asked questions that have been floating in my mind for years, and it wasn’t okay. A friend in my class even mentioned that the professor looked furious. However, trigger warning or not – the story might have been insignificant in her mind, but it was not for the affected person and people listening who might relate to the traumatic situation.
I was eventually able to ground myself. My friend and I texted each other afterward and I was okay in the sense that I didn’t have an anxiety attack and I didn’t cry. Yet, at that moment, I wanted to hit something. Now, I’m left with new and unwanted thoughts.
So, clearly trigger warnings are important. They can help a person to remove themselves from a conversation that may upset them. I was lucky that I didn’t go into a panic, especially as someone who suffers from anxiety. Nonetheless, triggers can make people do really impulsive and devastating things. We know that they’re important. But what do you do, in a moment like mine, when a trigger is given to you with no warning?
First, step away from the situation. I was in class, but I did not wait for permission to turn my camera off for a minute. A professor should be understanding. If you can mute what is happening, do that.
I think telling yourself to “not think” about something is easier said than done. So, instead, maybe try pacing an area and feeling every footstep. Repeat your actions to yourself: I am lifting my foot. My foot is touching the carpet. The ground feels hard. My arm is swinging. I am picking at my fingernails. The room smells like Febreze.
This is a grounding exercise that I’ve found really important and helpful. It helped me distance myself from what I was hearing on the computer. Unfortunately, I didn’t mute my call, so I still heard what was being said, which upset me. For this reason, I would recommend others to mute if possible or simply leave the room.
Another tip I have is to take your time. Sit on the floor for a few minutes, step outside and breathe in some fresh air, or maybe just drink some water, give yourself a hug, and say an affirmation.
When the event or class or conversation is over, call someone! I called my mom and told her what happened. This was really grounding for me. It made me feel better to know I wasn’t overreacting when my mom was also upset about the situation.
Additionally, take care of yourself! Too much stress can allow a cascade of thoughts to come flooding in. Don’t let a day revolve around the trigger you experienced. Let yourself be calm and do things that make you happy.
And please, say something. People need to understand that trigger warnings are vital. In some cases, they can literally save a life. In mine, it could have saved me a destructive new thought. Someone isn’t a bad person for not issuing a warning, but they need to know that it is a must in the future. This could help someone else out!