Three months after I was sexually assaulted, I experienced my first trigger. During a video interview with a musician, I’d asked him—this artist notorious for his sexy songs—what his best seduction tip was. “Roofie their drink,” he joked, “then they can never say no.”
Despite the fact that I knew he was just kidding, the damage was done: My heart began to race, I broke out into a sweat, experienced flashbacks, and started shaking uncontrollably. I thought for sure I was about to vomit all over him. Instead, I pretended to be a good sport, laughed it off, and finished the interview. Later, I went home and cried. It was the first of many PTSD episodes I experienced over the next few months.
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It almost certainly didn’t occur to this man that the 21-year-old woman he was speaking with would be affected by what he’d intended as a throwaway slice of dark humor. But I was, and in the ten years since my sexual assault, these sorts of careless, loaded social interactions would happen time and again, almost always at the hands of men who didn’t mean any harm but caused it anyway.
Social situations that have set off my PTSD include raucous conversations with friends; a movie with a less-than-tactful approach to a rape scene; and of course, the huggers, ticklers, and play-fighters of the world. These individuals don’t understand that their words and actions, no matter how innocently intended, can send me—and many others who have been sexually assaulted—into a spiral of reawakened trauma.
The term “trigger” has been unfairly and carelessly maligned, becoming synonymous with over-sensitivity.
But in reality, being triggered is a serious physical response that deserves to be dealt with sensitively. As Jennifer Litner, MSc, explains, triggers are reminders of past experiences that can cause a change in affect, altering how our emotions are regulated.
“I like to think of being triggered as similar to symptoms people experience when grieving the loss of a loved one. It would be disrespectful to ignore or be rude to someone about their emotional experiences that arise as the result of bereavement; the same is true for trigger responses resulting from sexual assault or trauma,” Litner says.
“When people are triggered by something, they may experience emotions like sadness, agitation, irritability, fear, and loneliness. Triggers usually happen randomly—people may see, hear, or experience something that brings up a painful or difficult memory.”
This means that everyday social interactions can become minefields difficult to navigate because you don’t necessarily know what’s going to trigger you. When you have PTSD, you might be surprised to find that you’re triggered by an action or statement that you would have previously found innocuous (like an unexpected hug) or offensive, but not triggering (like a rape joke).
However, sometimes triggering can be prevented. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted my friends to understand my boundaries and respect my needs, then I was going to have to talk with them about my experiences. This means I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations with men—men who had likely never been made to feel purposefully vulnerable in the same way that many women have.
According to RAINN, one in six women will experience sexual violence, compared with one in ten men; sexual assault is less common against men than it is against women, non-binary individuals, or transgender people, who experience shockingly high levels of sexual violence—one in two transgender individuals are sexually assaulted or abused in their lifetime.
It’s possible that because fewer men experience assault, they tend to be less conscious of certain behaviors that could be harmful to someone else. In the past decade, however, I’ve learned that if we want to inspire any real change, we have to make men conscious of these behaviors.
Trauma therapist Ginger Poag, MSW, LCSW, recommends having these conversations without feeling pressured to divulge exactly why you’re having them. “You don’t have to disclose that you’re a sexual assault survivor to everyone—instead, you can just tell them that their behavior is triggering based on negative experiences,” Poag says.
“I also encourage boundary setting. For example, you may say to a friend or colleague, ‘When you say ________, I feel _______. I’ve had some negative experiences in the past, and I just felt that I should share this with you.'”
Sometimes these conversations can really change matters for the better.
My friend Paul was one of the first friends I spoke with on the matter. When we first met, Paul had been a little too handsy with me while we were dancing together, which triggered me. When I brought this up to him a year later, without mentioning that I’d been assaulted, he was thoughtful and apologetic about it. Most importantly, he wasn’t too proud to hold himself accountable for his actions. He also said that I’m not the only person who had shared my concerns with him, and as a result, he’s improved how he relates to women and treats them.
What made it so easy for me to open up to Paul, despite that initial dancing misstep, is that we developed a close friendship that made me feel confident and comfortable talking to him about just about anything.
Of course, not every conversation I’ve had surrounding this issue has been as easy or successful—but there are strategies for coping.
Recently, a male acquaintance found it so hilarious that I asked him to stop play-fighting with me that he actually increased his efforts every time he saw me. Another told me to stop being “so PC” when I requested he not joke about getting his girlfriend so drunk that he could just “slip it in.” These conversations are essential, but they’re difficult—and not always successful.
It’s great when individuals respect your boundaries and agree to behavior that supports your needs, but it’s also worth remembering that we’re under no obligation to maintain relationships with people who refuse to do the same. As Poag puts it, “If your friend doesn’t respect boundaries, then I would examine whether or not they’re a person you’d want to remain close to.” In the event that such a person is someone who you have no choice but to spend time with (perhaps they’re a relative or the spouse of your best friend), Poag notes that there are still effective strategies for dealing with them, and the issues they present to you.
“The main strategy is to mentally prepare for the behavior to be present again,” she says. “Prepare to continue to set consistent boundaries with the individual, and when the behavior appears, excuse yourself from the situation. I generally role-play the situations with my clients and practice different ways to disengage from the conversation. I also encourage my clients to spend as little time as possible with the person.”
Another good strategy: Create a buffer. “Take a friend or significant other with you when you have to encounter the person,” Poag says. “Having someone there will provide emotional support and can help disengage you from uncomfortable conversations.”
Triggers can get especially tricky in the workplace.
When I was the assistant manager of a retail store, I found myself surrounded by young men who made rape jokes at every available opportunity. But when I approached them about their behavior as a team, my concerns were laughed off—they said they were just blowing off steam, and I should learn to take a joke. When I raised the issue to my manager, I was met with a condescending eye roll and the note that I should worry more about my job than about what the staff were joking about.
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I was aware of my rights as a worker, but I was also afraid to speak up. Over the next few months, my performance at work suffered, a result of staying silent and just putting up with it. I stopped communicating with staff and isolated myself more. Eventually, I was fired. This is a worst-case scenario for any workplace conversation regarding triggering behavior, and it was made even harder due to my lack of resources and support understanding how to effectively deal with the situation.
Poag says that there are some effective ways that survivors can broach the topic, however. “Addressing these issues can be difficult in the workplace. It’s important to note that no one should tell you your feelings are wrong. Your feelings are your feelings, and you deserve to have them acknowledged and not judged,” Poag says.
But there are ways to manage—and reasons to be hopeful.
I’ve learned that it’s not worth wasting time on people in my life who wilfully trigger me. I keep my distance from that play-fighting enthusiast who doesn’t know when to quit, and I most certainly don’t go for a drink if I know the guy who joked about raping his girlfriend will be there. As survivors, we shouldn’t be continually burdened with the emotional labor of having the same conversations or avoiding particular people or social scenarios, but sometimes, avoiding a trigger is the best way to manage the issue on a day-to-day basis.
However, it isn’t the only option. Michele Paolella, LMSW, director of social services at Day One, suggests that practical grounding techniques and controlled breathing exercises are important for managing difficult interactions with such people on a regular basis. “The same techniques can be used by people who aren’t able to avoid the person who caused them the sexual harm, who might also be a family member, in the same school, or apartment building,” she says. “These techniques can help to keep thoughts clear so that the survivor can create a plan to get to (emotional and/or physical) safety.”
Really, we need to create change on a larger, cultural scale. “I feel like it’s really up to us as a community to work toward culture shift so that it’s not always the responsibility of the survivor, or even the individual who is causing the trigger,” Paolella says. “That means implementing social and emotional learning programs for kids into schools to help children learn from a very young age how to empathize, set/respect boundaries, and communicate clearly, as well as working toward eliminating victim-blaming language in literature and the media.”
By having these conversations with friends and family, we can help create some awareness—which doesn’t just keep us safe, but can also protect others from traumatic stress in social scenarios.
Hopefully, we’ll see the end to casual rape jokes used as a way to get a cheap laugh—even when they’re not triggering, they’re offensive. Survivors are so over having to be “good sports” and quietly work through a panic attack set off by another person’s carelessness. Let’s have these conversations, and ideally, create communities that are more considerate and careful in the process.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, blogger, and musician based in Liverpool, UK. She’s the co-founder of the irreverent pop culture blog and podcast Clarissa Explains F*ck All and the bassist for d-beat punk band Aüralskit. She’s currently working on her first novel and slowly completing her debut poetry collection. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.