Trigger Warnings

Are trigger warnings a good idea? The short answer to this question is “yes” – but in the case of emetophobia and triggering words, they only help you for the short-term. For long-term helpfulness, we need a little more exposure and a lot less trigger warnings.

With emetophobia, I look at it like this: skipping over a Facebook post or missing out on a lecture, podcast or blog because of a trigger warning is really unfortunate. Already with emetophobia, we tend to make our world smaller and smaller.  The age-old principle of “get back on the horse” widens for those who are afraid to never being near horses, not wanting to go on farms lest horses are there, never taking a drive out of the city, to eventually not wanting to watch TV or movies in case there are horses, to finally being triggered by even the word “horse.” 

Should blog posts and podcasts and such have trigger warnings if they use the word “horse?” How could people know who and what we’re afraid of, as there are many rare phobias out there. I once knew someone with emetophobia who got triggered by the word “orange” because of a previous vomit experience where she was wearing an orange T-shirt. Not only did the T-shirt trigger her, but she couldn’t go into the grocery store because of all the orange things there and eventually she wouldn’t go outside and it extended finally to the word “orange.” 

I belong to several Facebook groups about emetophobia. I enjoy many of the posts, and try to add any helpful comments that I can. Seldom do I read “panic posts” or those with pictures of food asking if it looks cooked. But there are many more and often the answer to someone’s question may need to include any of the following words, which are not to be spelled out unless you post a trigger warning:

  • vomit
  • puke, barf, etc. etc.(synonyms for “vomit”)
  • nausea
  • sick, sickness, being sick
  • diarrhea
  • norovirus
  • stomach bug
  • bug
  • poop (that was a new one to me this past week)

We are supposed to abbreviate all of these words like this: “vxx” so as not to trigger people. I abide by the group rules, even though I don’t agree with them. 

Trigger warnings were originally intended to be about content, concepts, ideas and so forth. So for example, if sexual assault were to be discussed, it would be helpful to give a trigger warning for that so that (originally, students) could prepare themselves for the content they were about to hear. In extreme cases, alternative learning may have had to be provided for students with PTSD that was severe and/or relatively new.

If I am about to discuss a touchy subject with a guest on my podcast, such as one that we did about sexual assault, then a trigger warning is absolutely called for. Nobody expects to be hearing about sexual assault on an emetophobia podcast for one thing. People should be able to at least prepare themselves.

Abbreviating words has always seemed very extreme to me, even though, as I said, I endeavour to do it on groups that have this as a rule. I remember when seeing the word “vomit” in any context gave me a jolt of electricity. But a story with the word in it was far, far worse. If I read a story about someone vomiting in a book (bear with me, there was no internet at the time), I might even break down crying. The story would stay with me for years. I still remember all of them. 

From Wikipedia: Among people without traumatic experiences, “trigger warnings did not affect anxiety responses to potentially distressing material in general.” Studies disagree on whether trigger warning cause transient increases in anxiety in those without traumatic experiences. For participants who self-reported a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, or for participants who qualified for probable PTSD, trigger warnings had little statistically significant effect.1

Here’s my point: stories need trigger warnings; words should not.

If you have a fear of vomiting, then the only way out of that fear is to slowly and gradually exposure yourself to things that make you anxious that have to do with vomiting. The first of all those things is the word “vomit.” If you can’t see that word without some anxiety and you’ve read this far, you’ve been triggered a number of times by now. That’s ok. The first thing I do with my clients is have them write out the word, and any other triggering words or phrases, in huge bold letters with a marker on a piece of copy paper. Fill the whole sheet with just one word. Then pin it up all over your house. In the bathroom, your bedroom, the kitchen, everywhere. You may need several copies if you don’t have many words that upset you. 

Read the words every time you pass by them. Don’t say to yourself “it’s just a word” or “it’s just ink on a page.” That’s a safety behaviour and it’s not the point. The point is to just get used to seeing and hearing these words over and over and over again. Usually people’s family members are ready and willing to help by using the words in a sentence every chance they get. They need to make sentences up – like “the clouds are vomiting rain today” or “Charlie was vomiting out words all afternoon.” I promise you, within a week, you won’t care what words you see online and you won’t need trigger warnings. 

Meanwhile, we’ll both keep using them where we’ve agreed to.

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