In our struggle to be sensitive and self-aware, we have created new niceties that are intended to shield us from harm. The newly popular “Trigger Warning” allows us to tiptoe around all topics that might possibly bring up an emotional response ranging from negative thoughts/emotions to thoughts of self-harm to flashbacks that qualify as evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Our intentions to do no harm and feel no icky, are noble and very sensitive therapist-y. But, the field of psychology didn’t start out as a desire to make people feel better through a soft blanket and a cup of tea. It started with an Austrian neurologist’s desire to explore and understand the subconscious fears and wishes that people were not brave enough to confront, and evolved into a field that uses science and research that can be proven by numbers and facts that are required to be “statistically significant.”
To the best of my knowledge, there is no statistical formula in which an individual’s emotional response during the treatment is a measure of the outcome of success after the treatment.
In 1920, two researchers from Johns Hopkins University, John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner, came up with a fascinating and ethically disturbing idea to traumatize a nine-month old baby. They literally wanted to see if they could mess up a mentally healthy child.
Little Albert was shown a bunch of different objects including a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, and burning newspapers. (The latter being kinda traumatic in and of itself, no?)
Somehow, Watson & Rayner decided that the white rat would be the villain, and so every time they showed Little Albert the white rat, they used a hammer to strike a steel bar, scaring the bejeesus out of this poor kid. During the time he was tortured – I mean, “conditioned” – Little Albert’s phobia grew larger, and he soon became afraid of other white furry animals.
Around Little Albert’s first birthday, Watson & Rayner declared the experiment a success (Yay! We used classical conditioning to scar a baby!) and Little Albert left the hospital, with no attempts to fix the trauma that these two scientists had created.
Apologies. Should I have issued a trigger warning before telling you about Little Albert? It’s upsetting to hear about this unethical experiment done to this helpless infant. And I realize that we are at a time and place when learning to be more sensitive to the needs of others is an imperative.
But, the idea of issuing a “Trigger Warning” may actually be a cue to an individual who has experienced trauma to become hypervigilant, and for the stress hormone cortisol to suddenly skyrocket.
Cortisol is a powerful hormone that no doubt hails from a time when danger could be lurking around any corner and primitive man had to struggle to survive. The release of cortisol is triggered by stress or fear. Cortisol provides your body with coping mechanisms: An increase in adrenaline and blood sugar prepares you for flight, if necessary, an increased awareness, or awakening response, so that you can better assess the danger of your situation, and an increase in fear memory. Basically, cortisol wants you alert, pumped up, primed to react, and prepared to remember this danger so that you can avoid it in the future. Which is great, if there is actual danger, but less great if you are on your couch listening to a podcast or attending a mandatory work meeting.
Much like Pavlov’s dogs were trained to salivate at the sound of the dinner bell, we may be accidentally training traumatized individuals to flip out in anticipation of something that may not *necessarily* be a trigger for them, but may be a trigger for someone else. What is “triggering” to a rape victim is not necessarily the same as what is “triggering” to a veteran of war, and yet both are equally likely to anticipate trauma and increase their anxiety at the words “trigger warning.”
Prolonged exposure to cortisol is really bad for your physical and mental health and can cause fatigue, irritability, anxiety, depression, weight gain, low libido, and poor sleep. I’m concerned that we are doing a grave disservice by re-traumatizing people with our “trigger warnings.”
Let’s get back to Little Albert, because some good did come out of his experience. Fortunately, a young woman named Mary Cover Jones was in the audience of one of the many lectures Watson gave, touting his massive success at creating trauma in Little Albert’s life. Cover Jones, or as she is now known, “The Mother of Behavior Therapy,” knew a two-year-old boy named Peter, who had a significant fear of white rabbits.
Jones decided that something good could actually come from Watson’s work, and she set about attempting to eliminate Peter’s fear response.
Did she instruct Peter to avoid all rabbits? Did she instruct Peter’s parents to declare “Trigger Alert,” any time the potential to see a rabbit might appear?
No. Quite the opposite.
Jones gradually increased Peter’s tolerance to his fear by slow, systematic desensitization, also known as exposure therapy. She showed him a picture of a rabbit, showed him a stuffed rabbit, and later encouraged him to hold the stuffed rabbit. Eventually, through this direct conditioning – and having Peter interact with children who were not afraid of rabbits – Peter’s fear disappeared.
Peter’s fear of rabbits is completely incomparable to the trauma left over by rape, assault, or war. And yet the clinically validated treatments are largely based on the same behavior therapy that was used to cure Peter of his fear. The population that has been studied most thoroughly with regards to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is soldiers trying to recover from the horrors of war.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy gradually exposes the individual to the sounds, scents, or smells that remind the person of their trauma. Cognitive Restructuring asks people to remember the trauma, make sense of the bad memories, and in particular focus on threading apart the false memories that might be the result of guilt or shame that have been added on in the time since the trauma occurred. This is especially true of rape victims. It is also important to thread apart the errors in thinking that may make you feel “stuck.” The focus of therapy is often about re-evaluating trauma-related thinking and errors in judgment.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has also been found to be effective in reducing PTSD symptoms. The individual is asked to pay attention to either a sound or the motion of a pendulum while thinking about the trauma memory.
And, so why do we think issuing trigger warnings is helpful? Why do we think that it's okay to be uncomfortable when discussing racial inequality, but not when it comes to treating trauma?