Triggers, Allergies, and Content Labels

Here is another in my series of “things I see a lot across the web that I want to address”. This one is less directly about religion, although since the Pagan movement has a lot of marginalized people in it, I think it’s still really important for our own communities to keep in mind.

There are quite a number of people who say that spoiler warnings are polite, but object vehemently to trigger warnings on the grounds that people need to grow up and cope with life. It really brings home how much of this is about the stigma around psychological disorders, rather than any burden of etiquette or ethics.

I want to clarify my understanding of certain terms:

A Button is a thing which, when hit, prompts some emotional distress, be it sudden anger, or upset. Everybody has them. Some folks are more reactive than others. They’re often a reflection of our values. While we may not be able to change our emotional response to having a button hit, we are certainly able to choose how we behave in response to having a button hit. Not everyone has a lot of self control around their buttons, but learning to have self control around our buttons is indeed part of growing up.

A Trigger prompts panic attacks, flashbacks, or other systemic fight/flight/freeze reactions in a person who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other neurochemical conditions like Sensory Processing Disorder. They’re almost always experience-based, though they’re also significantly chemical. At best, they take a lot of time, effort, and often therapy and medication to reduce. Depending on the cause, they may well not be overcomeable at all. Regardless, triggers are not the kind of thing you can choose how to react to, or even consistently control your reaction to beyond trying to mitigate the effects after the fact.

If you’ve never experienced actual triggering, it’s genuinely hard to understand the difference. Count yourself as lucky. 5% of the adult population of the US has experienced a panic attack at some point, myself included. Before I had experienced full on triggering that I could identify as such, I didn’t understand the difference between a button and a trigger either. After the fact, the difference is painfully clear.

If you’re used to controlling your reaction to having your buttons pushed, and it seems like everyone who says they’ve been triggered really just means they’re upset, I can see thinking they need to just grow up and deal with it. And maybe there are some folks out there who, out of lack of experience with actual triggers, think the word for their experience with having their buttons pushed is “triggered”. But that’s not what the word actually means.

People compare Trigger warnings with allergy warnings, and while that’s an analogy, not an equivalence, I agree that it’s a useful one.

If a Button is a food sensitivity, where eating it may give you a nasty stomach ache and make your next bathroom experience unpleasant, then a Trigger is a food allergy, where coming into contact with it may put you in anaphalaxys and possibly land you in the hospital. Triggers and Allergies are non-trivial medical events.

Avoiding Buttons and Sensitivities are a function of self-care – if you spend all your time with your food Sensitivities activated, you’ll get sick. If you spend all your time with Buttons hit, you’ll get anxious and depressed, and thus sick.

Avoiding Allergies and Triggers are a function of self-care and disability access accommodations. If your Allergy is activated just the once, it’s a significant event requiring care. If you are Triggered just the once, it is a significant event requiring care.

Either way, the easiest way to avoid problems is to simply label things clearly.

I prefer judgement-neutral Content Labels in both cases. Don’t try to guess what people are sensitive to, just give a real, complete ingredients list and let people make their own choices.

And yet our society is reluctant to do even that.

Neither my significant food sensitivity to modified potato starch, nor my dear friend’s severe allergy to everything in the Chile family are required to be labeled clearly in our foods. Hers can be hidden behind “spices”, and mine behind “food starch”. I get to decide if it’s worth the risk of spending the rest of the night in the bathroom, possibly bleeding. She has to avoid everything with “spices” in it, which you will notice is most packaged food, or risk landing in the hospital unable to breathe.

This is exactly why clear labeling is an Accessibility issue. The same is true for triggers.

Will labels solve every instance of every problem? No, of course not. Solutions to complex problems are rarely perfect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t implement them.

So yes, sometimes some food will be cooked on the same surface where chiles were previously cooked, and there won’t be warning, and my friend will end up using her Epipen, or going to the ER. And sometimes I will go to a movie, and won’t know in advance that a particular scene 2/3rds in will leave me shaking and whimpering from a prolonged panic attack even having covered my eyes, because I couldn’t get out of the theater in time, and I get to breathe through it and my lover gets to spend several hours giving me aftercare. Shit happens.

But if the advertisements for the movie give me a fairly accurate idea what the movie is like, if the menu tells my friend which foods have chiles in them, we can avoid 90% of the things that give us severe biochemical reactions. And we’ll do what we have to do about the other 10%, but you understand why we very much appreciate having the incidence reduced to a mere 10% of possible exposures, yes?

Content Labels – including Trigger Warnings – are a responsible, ethical, polite way to let people who know their own limits make informed decisions as often as possible. As is often the case with disability accommodation, a minor inconvenience for those not affected creates a huge benefit for those otherwise at a disadvantage, while avoiding that inconvenience creates major obstacles and problems for others.