If someone is walking down the street, scents a pie baking, and is reminded of pleasant evenings at home, that smell is a trigger because it brings up personal associations and feelings that have nothing to do with what is going on in the present moment.
However, the word "trigger" is more generally reserved for negative experiences. There are many ways of feeling triggered:
In many online communities, the attitude toward triggers seems to be that common triggers can be predicted and that everyone must avoid them or warn the group at large if they use them. Swear words for example, or references to religious beliefs, or mention of sexual relationships.
There are many ways to provide trigger warnings. Some people indicate potentially traumatizing content in the subject line of a post or email, and often add up to a page of blank space and a reminder to scroll down when ready. Some add words like "trigger," "might trigger," or "MT;" others simply use "trigger warning" with an explanation. One simple problem with trigger warnings is the use of splatting or blanking out problematic words, which is sometimes done with such care that w*rds b*c*me ***irely unr***abl*.
Rules about warnings vary: different communities require warnings for content as diverse as swearing; food and eating issues; descriptions of abuse; mention of abuse; words like abuse, incest, and rape; political topics; and religious ideas, figures, or communities.
The theory is that a system of categorization allows people to choose when to encounter material that they know is likely to be triggering to them. There's no way for it to be foolproof. Everyone has different reactions and experiences. Even people with very similar abuse experiences will often have extremely different triggers. And, of course, there are those who aren't bothered by written material at all.
The Problems With Trigger Warnings
The biggest problem with trigger warnings is the human factor. One effect of abuse is to erode boundaries, and many of us are still learning how to replace them. In some cases, survivors use a childlike logic to deal with triggers: "You said something that triggered me, so you are bad for making me feel this way." Or: "I feel just like I did when I was being abused, so you must be abusive."
When people make mistakes, it can result in attacks from others who don't yet know how to deal with feeling triggered. A lack of boundaries around triggers can create a high-pressure atmosphere where everyone is on tiptoe lest they accidentally trigger someone .
On a personal level, I dislike having to warn people about potential triggers because I dislike having to keep track of these things for them. I've had intense codependent relationships where it became my job to always know what might trigger my partner and avoid it at all costs. I also have problems trusting my perception of reality -- another effect of abuse. So when I participate in communities which use trigger warnings, I end up being hyperconscious of others' needs, checking my words over and over to make sure that I have warned everyone sufficiently about anything I might have said. The cumulative effect, for me, is that I feel like my words are "bad," and like the group has decided that protecting others must come before reaching out for help.
Of course, a lot of this comes from my own problems with boundaries and the effects of my own abuse. I come to resent the idea that things are always equally triggering; the fact that my own triggers are not on "the list"; the fact that we do not differentiate between different kinds of triggers. I feel like there's no discussion of what it means to be triggered and what different ways there are to be triggered, and instead there's this idea that certain subjects are always triggering and should only be mentioned with great care because they might, basically, freak people out.
Ultimately, though, I think that many communities would benefit far more from devoting that time and energy to discussing how to recognize different ways of being triggered and what to do about it. My favorite survivor community, Survivorship, has semi-voluntary trigger warnings and devotes far more space in their rules to how to react to triggering material. In part, they remind people to "Remember that your perpetrators used common words and phrases and twisted their meaning. Chances are the person who posted is using those words in the regular way, not the cult way."
The bottom line is that it doesn't matter whether I hate trigger warnings. I have total freedom to choose communities which use trigger warnings that are okay with me, or which use none at all. But I think that we need to own our triggers. We can get knowledge and wisdom from them. We can process a lot of difficult experiences. We can get tremendous power from knowing that we are taking care of ourselves. I dream of a world in which we replace even voluntary warnings with a wonderful, detailed dialogue about how to notice what might be triggering and how to turn it into joy.
The Joy of Being Triggered
Some communities, out of fear, punish people who accidentally trigger others. They may kick people out, or simply argue for days about what was meant by a particular comment. But others take the opposite position, advising people not to expect any trigger warnings and instead to "own their triggers."
Owning your triggers means not blaming others for triggering you. It means working to recognize when your emotions are out of proportion to what is going on, and learning not to take old issues out on others. It means learning to distinguish between being triggered because of someone else's inappropriate behavior, and being triggered by something that's appropriate in the present but brought up something terrible from the past. It's a great example of the kind of healing that can be achieved through our triggers.
Triggers can be tremendously freeing. They are a source of information about what happened to us in the past. If I am committed to my own recovery, I can check in with myself regularly to see what's causing problems in my life. I can notice that certain situations always make me feel tremendous anxiety or anger, and realize that that is one of the big signs that I'm triggered . I might notice that when I'm triggered, I almost stop breathing, or that I have problems focusing my eyes. That can give me the power to realize that I'm triggered and avoid the triggering situation until I've figured out how to deal with it.
It can also give me the power to notice these symptoms in other situations and realize right away when I'm triggered, instead of making an assumption like, "I'm really angry. This person must be acting like a total asshole." Eventually, I can even develop a list of my own triggers and learn to automatically separate my past issues from what's going on right now -- and ultimately defuse the triggers entirely.
Just about everyone has some kind of triggers, whether they experience rape flashbacks or anger at behavior similar to an ex-partner's. And everyone can learn a lot about their past experiences from their triggers. For example, if Jane gets infuriated at a chronically late employee, she may realize that the employee reminds her of her mother, who was always late to Jane's rugby games. This give Jane the opportunity to separate employee and mother in her mind, and to remember that now she has the power to set boundaries and get her needs met.
Being triggered offers another opportunity, too: it gives me the chance to practice compassion toward myself. I believe that compassion is the antidote to abuse and other traumas. One of the main ways that I deal with body memories or overwhelming emotions from the past, for example, is to pay attention to what I am feeling as if this information were coming from someone else. I try to accept what my feelings tell me about what I've experienced, and to give myself (and to finally experience) the compassion that I was denied as a child. It helps me act as an adult instead of lashing out like a wounded child.
Finally, triggers are a great opportunity to get support and reality checks. When I notice that I'm feeling triggered, I get to gather information, ("Huh, I was looking at Disney stickers and they made me feel really nauseous. What do you think it means?") or to ask for help, ("My kid keeps on bugging me to play legos and it's driving me crazy! What should I do?") or to learn things about myself. ("My boss is driving me crazy! She keeps asking when I'll be done! Is it normal to be this pissed off about it?")
If we accept and learn from our triggers instead of fighting and avoiding them, they can help us transform and become safe, happy, and healthy. It's all in how we look at them.