Take Your Finger off the Trigger (Warnings)

So there’s this dude known by many to be the father of Behavioral Psychology. His name was John Broadus Watson. In secondary-and-tertiary-source-reading circles like mine, he’s well known for the following quote:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

Mr. Watson and his most ardent and/or radical adherents were the type who believed that too much coddling would essentially ruin a kid, make that kid think it was superior or something. In its purist form, his was a notion that kids are formed entirely (or almost entirely) by nurture, not nature. In its purist form, his was a notion that was false. It helped build psychology as a science, but it was false.

Coddling doesn’t turn kids into superior, whiny, entitled, little brats. In fact, sometimes, it just shows them they are loved and they are safe. Crazy how that works.

So let’s talk about safety for a minute as we survey another part of science: brain trauma.

When trauma (a deeply distressing or disturbing event) hits a person, that person’s amygdala takes over their brain, making it an emotionally-driven, protection-preferring machine, and making little pathways in the brain so it can remember how to do it all again next time. Depending on how the person processes that event both at the time and then again once the prefrontal cortex takes back over, all sorts of things can end up leading back down the little pathways to the trauma response. We call these things triggers.

We call them that because they are so fast and furious that they are basically like the catalyst to a speeding bullet. They are automatic, in a plain sense of the word. And they are biological. And the mental work it takes to redirect them is almost as hard for some folks as it would be to stop and redirect a speeding bullet.

In recent years, I have been happily noting that so many of the good humans of the world have been putting “trigger warnings” on things they write, speak, post, share, or discuss, in hopes of making their friends feel safe and welcome.

How I wish this had been common back at a time when just walking down a hallway in a mall or seeing a movie suggestion from a friend could involuntarily turn me into a fuming, adrenaline-infused, front-line soldier who just knew that apocalyptic death was imminent.

Needless to say, my opinion now is that this trend in using trigger warnings is not only welcome but desperately needed for so many. And it doesn’t coddle them. And it doesn’t ruin them.

My option back in my Hulk days was to turn it off, turn it all off. I went for about five years straight with no TV (a huge trigger-hive for me), no social media, and very few options for social events.

It took me a long time, but I finally worked through things — identified my triggers, questioned my responses, re-directed my brain (for the most part) — and I have long since been able to step back into the world of media and social media. But it would have been so much easier with trigger warnings. Seeing that little TW::::::: would have showed me that humanity cared, that people cared about how a simple thing might take me right back to my apocalyptic state. And that would have mattered. A lot.

So you can imagine how I feel now that Mr. John Watson’s cronies are back from the dead and more and more often meandering about the internet shouting about how they feel like profusely barfing at the thought of a coddled social media user whose poor little brain can’t handle reading their racist-rape-war-bullying-abuse jokes. You can imagine that I feel like, well, profusely barfing.

Being kind and thoughtful does not mean we are raising a generation of weak and arrogant babies. Doing our best to be aware of others does not mean we are thinning their skins. Being kind and aware means we are creating a foundation for hope, healing, and clearer vision, so that people can stop focusing on clearing the cluttered mental pathways of false danger, and they can move on to summiting mountains on real-world issues.

We’re almost a hundred years from when Mr. Watson was in his prime, almost a hundred years from when people actually believed that the automatic, amygdalic crying response in babies was rife with potential for turning them into little dictators. Let’s prove that we read past the first chapter of that Psychology 101 textbook and learned that picking up a crying baby is actually amazingly more akin to being a good and caring human than it is to shouting a Heil to your new baby-leader.

Trigger warnings help people who are victims of trauma. And helping people who are victims of trauma, doesn’t make them weak; it allows them to get stronger.

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