What trigger warnings are and when they help

| Senior Scene Editor

Trigger warnings are announcements made preceding a discussion, description or theatrical display of sexual violence, alerting the audience to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material. They’re usually tossed in mid-sentence as someone begins to describe something that could be triggering, or they’re mumbled off before a large presentation. They often include a well-intentioned side note about practicing self-care, while reminding audience members that “it’s OK to get up and leave if you need to,” But the ways these trigger warnings are delivered is often not helpful to the people they are meant to help.

Imagine this: You’re sitting in the middle of an auditorium with your entire grade. It’s just another freshman program, like the other ones you’ve been shuttled to in orientation. Let’s say you or someone close to you has had an experience with assault or sexual violence. You fold your hands waiting for the presentation to begin, and all of the sudden, you hear the words “trigger warning.” Your throat closes, and your heart speeds up just a little. Your body is bracing itself, waiting to go back to that place. If you stand up and leave, you identify yourself as a victim, which you are not prepared to do in front of your entire class. If you stay, then you have to relive your assault through whatever presentation is about to happen.

You choose to stay and cry silently in the back row, sweating and suffering and just hoping that no one can see the look of horror on your face.

The only trigger warnings I’ve received that were actually helpful were the ones that I was given well in advance before the event, with the option of not attending. Take my Abnormal Psychology class: We received an email a week in advance informing us that the presentation the following week would be triggering for sexual assault survivors and that the material would also be covered in the textbook if we chose not to attend that lecture. It was great! I got to make a game plan if I chose to go to class, and it gave me a week to plan for subsequent self-care, rather than being blindsided.

This scenario isn’t common place, though, and that’s scary. Since helpful trigger warnings are few and far between, here’s a list of ways to get out of triggering situations without losing your anonymity.

Fake a sickness. It could be a migraine, the stomach flu, food poisoning or anything in between. Grab your stomach, rest the back of your hand against your forehead and let whatever emotional fatigue you’re feeling show on your face. No one wants to keep someone in a room who is going to throw up. From there, go home and create a safe place for yourself. Deep breaths and grounding techniques can be very helpful. Envision what is happening around you. Actively feel the ground beneath your feet and study whatever is in front of you. Do whatever will make yourself feel happy in that moment (or at least comforted): Watch Netflix, color, anything.

Along the same note, just say that you need to go to the bathroom. Sure, people might say something demeaning like, “Can’t you just hold it?” But just tell them no. Let the panic paint your face, and cross your legs (or hop up) and then bolt. The sentiment that bodily fluids are never wanted also applies here. If someone tries to look for you, just make sure the stall is locked and lift your feet up on to the toilet seat.

Fake a call from your mom or guardian. Answer this fake call dramatically. Convey the horror you have with the current situation in how you answer the phone. Slowly get up from your seat, hand covering your mouth and tears pooling in your eyes. Nod your head and say “uh-huh, uh-huh,” as you walk out of the room barely containing your emotions. Once again, leave to self-care, and go wherever you feel safest. I personally prefer my room with the door locked or somewhere small and dark and in a corner. If anyone tries to confront you afterward, just say, “it’s family stuff.” If they keep pushing, reiterate that you don’t want to talk about it.

If it’s something like an assembly or a breakout session where you don’t know anyone, you can pretend that you’re in the wrong room. If they haven’t taken roll call or anything, give a fake name. You can also pretend to be a differently categorized student who has walked into the wrong assembly, like a sophomore who’s trying to hear a speaker and accidentally walked into a freshman orientation event.

Forget something in your home that was important. Maybe you really do have your ID on you, but pretend that you don’t. Make all the reasons apparent that you have to have it at that second—and get the heck out of there. This one’s a little weaker, but you can even just say you have a dog, and you didn’t close the door or that you didn’t lock your car. If you’re a freshman, say you left your straightener on (or something to that extent), implying you’re about to set the entire South 40 on fire.

All of these examples involve acting and lying and emotional hardship, and it’s an unfair position to be in, yet this is the reality—and I’m sorry. If you’re in the position to give an effective trigger warning, do it. Even if it’s on a small scale, do it.

If you need to speak to someone or just need help getting out of events that send you into an emotional spiral, contact Kim Webb, Director of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, at kim_webb@wustl.edu. She can help you, she’s confidential and avoiding these situations is worth it. Use her for the advocate, friend and therapist that she is.