I absolutely love psychology and how far we’ve come through the decades of research. What breaks my heart is that a lot of people take all of this beautiful research and completely throw it out the window. One of the primary examples of this is the culture of avoiding triggers that has been so prominent in recent years.
Yesterday, I was catching up on YouTube and I came across a video discussing the “proana” (pro-anorexia) community on TikTok that was previously an issue on Tumblr. This is absolutely an issue that needs to be discussed, and the creator did a good job with a brief trigger warning at the beginning of her video. As I kept watching, what troubled me was the half-dozen other trigger warnings throughout the video.
I’d Have a Terrible Life if I Kept Avoiding Triggers
Over seven years ago, I was able to overcome my addiction to drugs and alcohol. My addiction started out with alcohol, but then I found prescription opioids. After almost dying after years of slowly killing myself, I moved from Las Vegas, NV, to Fresno, CA, to get sober. I was sober for a little over a year in Fresno, but then I decided it was time to move back to Las Vegas and start being a father to my son again.
My friends in recovery lost their minds.
“You can’t move back to Las Vegas! There are so many triggers there!”
Something I learned when I got sober was that I’m an addict through and through. Everything triggers me. If I’m sad, nervous, angry or even happy, I’m triggered. If it’s daytime, I’m triggered, and if it’s night time, I’m triggered. I’m the type of addict that you can put on a deserted island, and I’ll sniff coconut shavings to get high. So, living in Las Vegas isn’t a better or worse situation.
I’ve been sober in Las Vegas for over six years now, and I haven’t picked up a single drink or a drug. My entire life is still a trigger, but I’m able to deal with them because I haven’t been avoiding them.
How could I be a father to my son if I decided not to live in Las Vegas because of triggers?
Due to my sobriety (and being the ripe old age of 34), I don’t have much business hanging out at bars or going to the strip. I do love concerts though, and every show is at a venue on the strip, and each of these venues has a bar. Imagine if I didn’t go to one of the types of events that bring me joy because I’m too busy avoiding my triggers.
If I’m being honest with you, I get triggered every time I go to the grocery store. When I walk past the liquor section, I see all of my old favorites. The other day when I was at the store’s pharmacy getting my antidepressants, I caught myself looking behind the counter and thinking, “I wonder where they keep the prescription opioids.”
So, what’s the solution? Am I supposed to never go grocery shopping again due to triggers? What kind of life would that be?
The Psychology of Avoidance
I don’t think people who promote the trigger avoidance culture have bad intentions, but it comes from a place from ignorance. While claiming they care about your mental health, it’s very clear that they don’t understand psychology and mental health all that much. Their intentions are pure, but people who put such an emphasis on trigger warnings aren’t doing us any favors.
I came across this great article from Psychology Today, and this pretty much summarizes the issue:
Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.
What we need to realize is that no therapist in their right mind would ever tell you to constantly avoid your triggers. I worked at a dual diagnosis treatment center for years, and I can’t even imagine a therapist telling one of our patients to avoid their triggers. If they did, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t work there much longer.
I think the best explanation of why trigger avoidance is so counter-productive comes from the book The Coddling of the American Mind by the amazing psychologist (and one of my favorite authors), Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a huge practitioner in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is one of the best forms of therapy out there that helps with anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction and more. The core component of CBT is challenging your cognitive distortions, which are the lies our minds tell us. One such cognitive distortion is catastrophizing.
Alice Boyes, Ph.D. explains catastrophizing as having two parts:
1. Predicting a negative outcome.
2. Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt plays out a therapy scenario where a therapist doesn’t have the client challenge this distortion, and that’s when you realize how silly trigger avoidance is.
A person sees their therapist…
Client: “I’m worried about going to this work event because I have social anxiety.”
Therapist: “You should be worried. That’d be awful being around all those people.”
Client 2: “One of my employees has been stealing from the company, but I don’t like confrontation.”
Therapist: “I completely agree! Avoid confrontation at all costs.”
Client 3: “What if I try to get the job and they don’t hire me?”
Therapist: “That’d be the worst thing to ever happen to you in your life.”
I think I’ve made my point, but do you see how absolutely ridiculous that sounds? Therapists are compassionate and will help us honor the thoughts and feelings we have, but if they want us to get better, they’re not going to tell us to keep avoiding our triggers or uncomfortable situations. The objective of therapy is to help you get better and not stay trapped in your distortions that the world is going to end if you’re triggered.
You’re Stronger Than You Think
The biggest issue with this culture of avoidance is that it gives zero credit to the amazingness of human resilience. When I saw that YouTuber give all those trigger warnings throughout the video, I felt insulted and felt like others should feel insulted as well. We need to start giving people a little bit more credit for their ability to persevere. If we continue to make people think that they can’t even handle seeing an image, we’re telling them that they’re weak.
So, I’m here to tell you that you’re a lot stronger than you realize. You’re built to persevere, and you don’t even have to believe me. Take a moment and think of all the negative experiences you’ve been through in your life, and then look around you and realize that you’re still here.
There’s a really good chance that you’ve been through much worse than any image that pops up on a screen or any words you read or hear.
Resilience isn’t something that happens in a day or even a week, but it comes as we continue to face our triggers. Humans are an incredible species, and it’s discussed thoroughly in the best-selling book Grit by Angela Duckworth as well as The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal.
Building resilience is like lifting weights. You start out with smaller weights, and gradually you can handle more as long as you keep at it.
Aside from CBT, an excellent form of therapy that’s commonly used to help people stop their avoidant behaviors is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is exactly what it sounds like. You face your fears little by little, and as you continue to do so, you start to gain confidence and realize how strong you actually are. For example, if you have social anxiety, they won’t tell you to hop up on a stage in front of hundreds of people, but maybe they’d tell you to introduce yourself to one new person a day.
Avoiding every trigger does more harm than good, and it holds us back from living the life that we deserve. If avoidance was practical, I wouldn’t be able to live my amazing life in Las Vegas with my son. This is now a lesson I get to teach to my son as well to help him build resilience at a young age.
When he was younger, he was super sensitive to loud sounds. The 4th of July was his worst nightmare, and we had to leave Cars 2 in the theater within the first 5 minutes of the movie because it was too loud for him. Gradually, he took baby steps to stop avoiding loud sounds. Today, he loves the 4th of July, and we see a ton of movies together. He’s even managed to face his fears of scary movies, and he loves watching them with my girlfriend and me.
He still covers his ears during the scary parts, but he’s doing better than his own dad because I cover my eyes. I’m still working on not avoiding that trigger, but two years ago I refused to even watch scary movies. So, if I can stay sober in Las Vegas and watch scary movies with my son, imagine all of the awesome things you can do.
If you struggle with trigger avoidance, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this link, you help support The Rewired Soul.