“Brace! Brace!”

***Triggering content – this piece includes non-explicit references to abuse/violence.

Definition of trauma triggers.

Definition of trigger warning.

If you have ever flown, you will be familiar with the phrase “Brace! Brace!” which pilots announce to prepare passengers for an emergency.  If turbulence is anticipated during a flight, the pilot notifies passengers and puts on the “fasten your seatbelts” sign for a short period.  Trigger warnings are used to similar effect for potentially traumatic material.  There are opposing views on whether “trigger warnings” are needed with some having even written articles on the “Trigger Warning Backlash.”  Those who read my writing, or have heard me speak will already know which camp I’m in. I give clear and frequent warnings, well in advance, ever mindful of what others may have survived in their own life.  In any group, some will have survived abuse, rape, physical/sexual violence or other trauma.  NHS statistics  show a third of survivors will subsequently develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For these survivors, trauma-related anxiety can easily be triggered.  Anything can be triggering – smells, textures, words, noises, names, songs, images – the list is both endless and personal for s/he who survived the trauma.  Indeed, stories mirroring their own in some aspect can also be triggering.  Once triggered, a person may experience a range of intense symptoms including panic attacks & flashbacks. While it is impossible to avoid all triggers, it makes perfect sense to give a “heads-up” where able.  Once warned, people can choose to stop reading, to leave the room or to change their focus.

Years ago, a safeguarding trainer whose course I attended played an audio recording. It was a man who was a convicted child sex offender speaking about abusing children.

The recording was graphic, shocking, haunting and desperately vile to listen to.

What stayed with me, was that the trainer had given no warning whatsoever.  The recording would have been equally shocking and vile had she prepared the group, but delegates could have braced themselves emotionally, or even chosen to take a break.  Undoubtedly everyone in that room likely either felt triggered or experienced vicarious trauma listening to the sex offender.  The fact I still remember that incident (though not the course itself, interestingly) partly contributes to my own practice around use of trigger warnings.

During my childhood, my Dad worked in children’s social care.  A social worker, his main topics of conversation at home, were child abuse and child neglect.  At a very young age, I knew masses about these topics and heard stories other children my age would never be exposed to.  Even so, there are times as in the example above where I feel so shocked, and so distracted by information, that as I try to regulate my own emotional response, the topic or story itself doesn’t even register.  Recently, I have seen this happen to two friends who work in the field of child sexual abuse. Though all too familiar with traumatic testimony, stories shared with no warning affected them both profoundly.  One, also a survivor herself, was so intensely triggered by something graphic and raw shared with no forewarning, that it took her several days to recalibrate her well-being.

Let’s ask ourselves this: don’t we all have the right to feel safe?  Can’t we look out for one another’s well-being by offering a few words of warning at the beginning of a blog, an article, a book, a training session or a presentation which contains difficult content? Morally, don’t we have a responsibility to others to not deliberately cause emotional distress?

It may mean the world of difference to someone in your audience, giving them the choice to engage at a different time, when they have access to adequate emotional support.  They might even decide it does not feel safe for them be open to whatever you share and they can leave the room or exit the website if it is a written piece.

Giving a trigger warning may spare someone from the violent effects of re-visiting a place and time that was horrifying and life-changing for them.

I think little warning to “Brace! Brace!” when sharing difficult content with others is not much to ask.  Don’t you?