Imagine this scenario (this is based on a true story):
A presenter (a white woman) is asked to speak to a group of undergraduate university students. She prepares for the speech and then gives it. She has some initial remarks and then wants to have some discussion and conversation with the class.
She finishes her remarks and then a hand comes up for what presumably is going to be a question, from as it turns out, a person of color (young man).
“Your whiteness is triggering me.”
At this point, as you can imagine, things get very tense and the intended conversation gets derailed and whatever the presenter has presented on is never really directly dealt with as this statement sucks all the oxygen out of the room.
Now the typical off the cuff response from many quarters here would be to mock this response as that of some insular university snowflake (though I’m not sure snowflake is a good term for a brown dude?). Others might feel the need to defend or even applaud the comment. Either way the tendency is to lock into preset positions and attack the other side.
I’m going to wade into some very heated and controversial waters here but I’d like to chart a third course as opposed to that reactive binary. I’d like to take the words more seriously and see what might be their implications.
At the heart of this exploration will be the notion of trauma and the vexed question of what responsibility each of us has in relationship to our own trauma. To be clear I don’t mean what responsibility a person has for causing their own trauma (often there’s none) but rather what, if any, responsibility we have to each other in terms of how we respond and relate to our own trauma.
Tied in are a whole series of related questions of how exactly triggering (and thereby trauma) relates to academic pursuits. For example, whether students should be granted permission not to read certain assigned texts based on their claims of being potentially triggered by the book.
To be clear the link to trauma is inherent in the student's statement itself: “triggering me.”
The word trigger derives from a Dutch word (trekken) meaning "to draw or pull.” From there the word enters English and applies to contexts like mechanical operation, e.g. the trigger on a gun. Pull the trigger and the weapon fires.
The word triggered entered psychological usage primarily following the return of American soldiers from the Vietnam War. Triggers were seen as events in the present that could “fire” a latent memory, say a flashback to the war. The trigger was something that “drew” or “pulled” someone back into a traumatic memory or experience (in this case a war). So in this context triggers were directly related to what we now know as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). One of the other key points in this research was the strong emphasis on the sensory nature of the triggers, the most common being visual or auditory cues--that point will become very important in a moment.
From there the concept was extended not to just to traumatized war veterans but to others in society who had been exposed to similarly violent or destructive events such as victims of attack, abuse, horrific accidents, etc.
More recently the word trigger has started to extend out from its original usage, especially in online media spaces and social justice activist circles. Take this piece from Everyday Feminism which I take to be very emblematic of this subtle shift.
From the article (my emphasis):
“Triggering occurs when any certain something (a 'trigger') causes a negative emotional response. The emotional response can be fear, sadness, panic, flashbacks, and pain, as well as any physical symptoms associated with these emotions (shaking, loss of appetite, fainting, fatigue, and so on).”
I highlighted the phrase negative emotional response because that is a significant change from the earlier, more psychologically rooted, notion of stimuli activating traumatic memory or sensation. You may think that’s just an unimportant semantic difference but I think it’s a significant change in understanding. More importantly I think it’s seriously flawed change in understanding, one that has enormously negative repercussions we’re seeing play out nowadays.
First there are no such things as negative emotional responses. There may be overwhelming emotional responses, very intense emotional responses, painful emotional responses and so on but we need to choose our words very very very carefully in this context. Those experiences are not inherently negative. They certainly can be if left untreated. But in and of themselves they are simply things that happen. The responses themselves are not negative. What we do (or don’t do) in relation to those responses are either positive or negative but not the responses themselves. Very intense emotional responses, if properly responded to, can actually be crucial clues in starting a journey towards healing. Painful emotional responses can be a key indicator something is in need of proper attention and care in one's life.
The short version is that a trigger does not cause a negative emotional response. The trigger activates latent traumatic sensation in the nervous system. In other words, the trauma is already in the person. The trigger simply (re)activates the already existing trauma. The trigger does not cause the trauma. The latent traumatic sensation may well have emotional content or a mood about it but again the trigger does not cause a negative emotional response it simply surfaces that which is already there.
Once more this is not being nit picky about language. The Everyday Feminism piece represents a tidal change in understanding and there are profound implications to that change. A direct line can be drawn between that change in understanding (or in my view misunderstanding) that the everyday feminism article references and the story with which I started the piece, namely a person saying “your whiteness triggers me.”
Misunderstanding the nature of what precisely a trigger triggers changes drastically what we believe should be done in response to the situation. If you believe that a trigger causes a negative emotional response, then it logically follows to argue that the proper response to a triggering event is to stop the trigger, thereby stopping the (so-called) negative emotional response.
Hence people advocating that they shouldn’t have to read a book that could potentially trigger them. (Even though the evidence now shows this is a very problematic idea.) Or activists shutting down speakers whose views will bring forward “negative emotional responses” in them, having the side effect of undermining the value of free speech and free thought.
Or seeking to silence someone by saying for example “your whiteness triggers me.”
All of those behaviors follow inevitably and "logically" from the mistaken foundational assumption that the trigger causes a traumatic response and that a so-called negative emotional response is equivalent to trauma which is not automatically the case.
Conventional Western (even global) society has a deep bias against emotional intelligence. There’s a pervasive belief in the false notion that there are such things are negative and positive emotions, which there are not. Further Western society teaches people to seek to maximize so-called positive emotions (basically happiness) and seek to eliminate, deny, or repress so-called negative emotions (basically all the rest).
Left-wing activist (so-called social justice warriors) have essentially taken that conventional Western societal anti-emotional intelligence outlook and added to it a misunderstanding of trauma. This ends up being a potent yet toxic brew.
Read again that quotation from the everyday feminism article.
Triggering occurs when any certain something (a "trigger”) causes a negative emotional response. The emotional response can be fear, sadness, panic, flashbacks, and pain, as well as any physical symptoms associated with these emotions (shaking, loss of appetite, fainting, fatigue, and so on).
Sadness is here defined as negative. Really think about the implication of that statement. According to this definition literally anything that makes anyone sad can be claimed to be a trigger and then sought to be eliminated.
So there’s a serious error in misidentifying triggers with causing so-called negative emotional responses. But if we take that out for a second the rest of the quotation does say something really crucial. What it’s actually discussing is a nervous system that has indeed been triggered: “shaking, loss of appetite, fainting, fatigue, and so on.”
What a trigger triggers is a dysregulated nervous system, aka a traumatized nervous system. When triggering occurs then various emotional and physical sensations correlated with a dysregulated nervous system will arise. The so-called negative emotional responses are not what is caused by the trigger. The trigger triggers the already dysregulated nervous system which then in turn excites various emotional and sensory symptoms.
Again that difference is subtle but the implications are vast.
As previously mentioned if you think that the trigger causes negative emotions then you’ll think about ways to get rid of the triggers to make your “bad feelings go away.”
If however the trigger triggers a latent dysregulation in your own being then simply going around trying to get rid of triggers will in the end be a total waste of time. Precisely because the actual deeper issue at hand (the trauma) is latent in your nervous system and there is no way in hell to get rid of all the potential triggers in the world. That’s because (as the research shows) triggers can be highly variable, idiosyncratic, and unique to each person.
The deep need in such a case is not to spend a lifetime trying to remove triggers but actually healing the underlying trauma itself so that one can't be triggered.
Which brings us back to the initial story I shared and the statement “your whiteness is triggering me.”
Either or possibly both of two things is happening in that situation then.
Option One: The person has an uncritical view rooted in a mindset like that of the everyday feminism article. Namely they’re having an uncomfortable emotional response to a white presenter and they’re claiming the mantle of “being triggered” as a power move to try to silence the presenter.
Option Two: They are telling the truth and they are actually describing the experience of having their dysregulated nervous system activated by the presence of a white presenter.
Or maybe it's a bit of both. But I want to explore the second option because it’s way too easy in my view to write it off as automatically the first option. To do that we need to dive in a bit more on what trauma is (having already covered what it isn’t, namely “negative emotional responses”.)
Trauma research defines three main categories of traumatization.
—Individual traumatic incidents.
This category is the one most people think of when it comes to trauma. Soldiers fighting in a war zones, a person who survives a terrible car accident or a fire. Physical or sexual abuse. Medical trauma also fits into this category.
Contrary to what most people assume an event does not have to be massively violent or gruesome for this form of trauma to occur. A “fender bender” car accident, if not properly treated, can easily lead to severe traumatization.
This is trauma that occurs very early on, even including in utero. Birth trauma, neglect, lack of proper attunement and attachment, emotional or verbal (as well as physical or sexual) abuse in childhood, abandonment by caregivers. This category is massively underestimated.
Chronic stress is itself traumatizing. Let that really sink in. The entire epidemic of anxiety and depression, as well as many so-called mystery medical illnesses (e.g. leaky gut & chronic fatigue) are consequences of trauma, often of this variety.
Those are the three main categories of trauma defined in the literature. We can also add in the increasing realization of multi-generational or inherited trauma. See the growing field of research around epigenetics for example.
What all this means is that there’s not a category of people called traumatized and a category of people called untraumatized. Everyone is traumatized. Everyone in our society has a dysregulated nervous system. It's definitely a very wide spectrum. Nevertheless the only difference is to what degree of severity and amount of trauma a person has and perhaps most importantly, the difference is whether a person learns to re-regulate their nervous system and heal themselves or not. (I’m going to come back to this point in a moment.)
The physiology of trauma (aka dysregulation) is an entire category unto itself. I can’t summarize it here but here's a good place to begin. Essentially there’s flight, fight, and freeze. Fight and flight occur through the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This is intense activation (this is at the root of the anxiety epidemic). In the earlier quotation things like the shaking and panic are expressions of fight and/or flight.
If the fight or flight mechanism cannot be properly discharged then the person goes into freeze. Freeze is from a different branch of the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic). The freeze response is the most archaic one in our nervous system. In the earlier quotation fainting and fatigue are examples of the freeze response (as is the chronic depression epidemic).
The remedy to all of this is to learn to re-regulate your own nervous system. A major part of that work is to learn to safely grow your comfort with uncomfortable or intense sensation and experience. That includes intense emotions as well as visceral physical sensation. As explored elsewhere on the site that is true whether we're talking university classes, social media, or even experiences of mystical high strangeness.
As one begins to develop more capacity to stay with uncomfortable and/or intense sensation the nervous system naturally “shakes off” or discharges the underlying trauma. Once a person can safely discharge these sensations in small, sustainable amounts (called titration), they consciously bring themselves out of freeze back through fight or flight eventually into function and healthy regulation.
In so doing they become responsible for the totality of their human, organismic reality. It’s an empowerment orientation in that triggers are always going to exist. Situations that will activate our survival physiology will always exist. Certainly we could work to make a less insane world than the one in which we inhabit (and lessen the most obvious and destructive triggers) and that is important work. It is not likely however to happen anytime soon and in the meantime every individual needs to be equipped to learn to regulate their own system. Otherwise we are all at the mercy of forces beyond our control which will regulate our nervous systems for us and definitely not with our health or well being at heart.
When a person can regulate their own nervous system and come back into their integrative functioning, they feel a deep sense of safety. Notice all the language about “safe spaces”, “feeling unsafe”, safe vs. unsafe people and so on nowadays. The practice of say trying to get all the white kids not to show up at school one day in order to have a safe day for students of color reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the physiology of actual safety. (Even the counter to the protest involved saying the campus wasn't "safe" for whites, employing the very same language and flawed worldview used against such students in the first place.)
Anyone with a trauma and regulation-informed lens will quickly realize the concrete practice of so-called safe spaces, complete with shunning, ostracism, and silencing is the precise opposite of any actual, grounded, embodied safety. These practices are from a nervous system point of view simply the attempt to transfer one’s trauma onto someone else. Valid claims of objective historical and present-day oppression can easily elide into the subjective practice of seeking to discharge one’s trauma unconsciously by placing it on another, thereby being legitimized as an act of resistance.
Consider that framework in light of the statement, “your whiteness triggers me.”
Whiteness itself is a very specific term. It’s a term from critical race theory meant to describe the historical, sociological, political, cultural, economic, and linguistic aspects of being white, of whiteness as a construct (and arguably real existing phenomena).
The statement “your whiteness is triggering me” brings two major forms of thought together: trauma theory + critical race theory.
I’ve focused on the trauma angle in this piece (and even only a very small amount of it) but I don’t want to ignore the other major half of the statement.
By combining these two discourses together question naturally arises: can a racial construct (whiteness) trigger a dysregulated nervous system?
I don’t have an easy answer to that one. I’m not sure anyone does. I’m not sure it’s been properly thought through and studied (I could be corrected on that point if someone shows me it has--I'll be happy to update the piece and link to any relevant sources). Speaking very broadly there’s a growing reference to trauma in critical sociological and political work but not necessarily with a strong grounding in the physiology of trauma nor in its healing.
It may well be that there needs to be a fourth category of traumatization: racial (or similar type minority status depending on context.) For example is being a gay man in a heterosexually dominant world traumatizating? In other words does it create chronic stress? I would guess the answer there is probably a yes. Maybe not to the same degree in all cases and all situations as there are more and less welcoming environments and life histories at play but overall that sounds quite plausible to me.
Now before I get accused of this let me state clearly that everybody learning to regulate their own nervous systems while leaving intact structural forms of injustice is not a final solution. But then again spending all this time fighting against institutional and cultural forms of injustice but not actually learning to how to regulate oneself in the process is a recipe for further traumatization. Learning to regulate oneself is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the kind of larger scale justice work that is necessary. Doing that work without regulation is a recipe for re-enacting traumatization (which is precisely what we’re seeing in activist and SJW spaces.)
The last thing to know about trauma (dysregulation) is that there are only three options in responding to it.
a) Suck it in.
A person keeps all the trauma in themselves and their health and well being deteriorates as a result.
b) Project it out onto someone else
Hurt people hurt people.
c) Learn to transform it within yourself.
Option c is the only viable option.
So let’s say this person’s whiteness did trigger this person of color’s dysregulated nervous system.
How could that have gone differently with a deep understanding and practice of trauma in mind?
The first thing would be to de-personalize the situation. The whiteness being expressed through a specific white person is itself a cultural or social phenomena. It’s not particularly personal to that individual. They became a representative of a larger collective dynamic (whiteness). The emphasis on "your" in "your whiteness is triggering me" is highly personalizing and threatening and automatically activates everyone's survival instincts, resulting in a fundamentally dissonant and unresolved experience.
Curiosity and observation is one of the keys in healing trauma. Becoming curious about our sensations instead of for example immediately labeling them “negative emotional responses”. Or say claiming someone is triggering someone else, especially when it the trigger in question is a non-personal systemic racial one.
So the white person could have said, “can you tell me more concretely what you mean by my whiteness in this instance?” (emphasis on “in this instance”).
The person of colour could have followed up “your whiteness is triggering me” with “and I’m taking responsibility for how I respond to that activation.”
Because everyone is responsible for how they respond to their own activation, even if they are not always responsible for being triggered in the first place. Then perhaps space would be open to find ways forward. Otherwise when the survival mechanism of fight/flight/freeze becomes activated, then rational perspective-taking and neocortex processing shuts off, leaving only unconscious instinctual responses to fill the void. That scenario never ends well.
It seems to me that level of maturity and responsibility is basically non-existent in our world (in either case I mean). It’s an impossible thing to do without the ability to regulate one’s own nervous system in real time—itself quite the art to master.
One of the upshots incidentally of studying trauma and its healing is that the underlying physiology and healing of trauma is universal. It’s not popular to speak of universals today philosophically but here is an actual well grounded case of one. Triggers can be personal or culturally variable but the actual impact upon the nervous system is the same across the human species—as is the foundational principles of restoring the nervous system to proper functioning and health, though the way those practices might be communicated and embodied could have distinct cultural expression.
The question of responsibility in these instances is very complex and subtle. When there is a history of oppression finding balance around responsibility (to all parties involved) is very fraught.
That being said, I do believe without a real understanding of trauma there is no way to ever get at that question in any real generative depth. Especially when trauma as a category is being invoked in the conversation but the individuals citing trauma don’t actually know about trauma, how to heal it, or what actually the responsibility of us to our trauma is.
Otherwise the invocation of trauma becomes what it is all over the place today, another weapon in a cultural war.
Misunderstanding trauma becomes another way of traumatizing each other.