I don’t claim to be anything close to an expert in psychology, but from my understanding phobias and trauma, including PTSD, operate in similar ways on our minds, behaviors, reactions, and are also treated in very similar ways, i.e., exposure therapy. When I think of trigger warnings, I often think of how my own phobia works as a way to think about the role of trigger warnings in the classroom and elsewhere. It can be understandably difficult for people to talk about their own trauma in the discussion on trigger warnings, especially since the very facts surrounding the conversation usually mean putting one of the most vulnerable parts of oneself at the center of a contentious discussion.
As it happens, I have a very serious phobia of a very silly thing: grasshoppers. Because of this, it’s pretty easy for me to talk about how my phobia feels to me, though it hasn’t always been this way. Through high school and even college I tried not to let people know about my phobia unless I trusted them to take it seriously. During that time part of my anxiety simply involved how people would react if they found out. They might decide it was fun to torment me, thinking it was a joke, for example.
I’ve had this phobia for as long as I can remember. If there was a bad experience with a grasshopper when I was a very small child, I was so young that I simply can’t remember it as the starting point for the fear. Growing up in Western Kansas, grasshoppers are a fact of life in the late summer and early fall, so I had any number of phobia reinforcing incidents once it began. A lot of people don’t like bugs or snakes or other common things people have phobias of, but what distinguishes a phobia is that the dislike and fear is bad enough that it causes a person to alter their behavior.
For me, that has meant a lot of things over the course of my life. I dread going outside in the summer, for example. I would never think of going to a picnic or on a hike in the middle of September. In fact, I hate summer largely because, to me, summer means grasshoppers. Being at Girl Scout camp (full stop) and being made to sleep outside on the ground one night of the week was so panic-inducing that I asked to call my parents to come get me. The camp refused, so I wrote my parents a pathetic letter asking to come home. By the time it got there it was the penultimate day of the camp, so they just waited. A few years ago I was on one of those shuttles at the Kansas City airport that takes you from the parking to the terminal. As soon as I got on board I saw that there was a large green hopper (as I call them) hanging out on the ceiling on the bus. I tried to stay cool. It was awful. I was trapped. There was nothing I could do. Trying to tell people could only have made it worse. Then as we mercifully got to the terminal I grabbed my bag and saw that another small hopper was sitting right next to my bag! I freaked out completely and pushed a man out of the bus so I could get out. Sorry, man who got in my way. I would try to explain, but you wouldn’t understand. On at least two occasions people have asked me in parking lots whether I was fleeing an abusive partner because I was acting so distressed in or around my car. No, just grasshoppers. The worst day of my life was a trip to a Colorado Rockies game where the entire outside of the stadium was covered in hoppers. More than I’d seen in one place before or since. To be honest, I don’t know how I managed to get past them to the inside (where there were not really any hoppers—they like the sun and the inside was shaded) and actually watch the rest of the game. When I was a kid reading Little House on the Prairie books I would think about how if I ever found myself in the midst of a grasshopper plague I would have to kill myself. As an 8-year-old, this was my grim thought.
When I encounter a grasshopper, the response of my body is immediate. My brain has no chance to think about what it’s doing. I just have to get away. My body and face feel hot, and my stomach clenches tight. My eyes feel wide and I can’t think of anything but getting somewhere else. I twitch and sort of shake my hands; sometimes I have to brush off my whole body because I’m afraid there might be one on me. The other day one surprised me in the parking lot of Marshall’s and I sprinted all the way home.
All that to say, it’s not very fun having this thing that will take me from having a good time or just generally living my life to immediate flight mode with no warning. Beyond these immediate experiences, I also tend to live with constant anxiety during the summer that this will happen. Sometimes I lie awake and just think about what it would be like to suddenly see a grasshopper and have that terrible feeling. A therapist I had in Colorado told me that a lot of people who have panic attacks fear the feeling of panic itself, not whatever triggers the panic attack. That seems right to me, but it doesn’t help much with a phobia where the stimulus and response is ingrained as deeply as mine is.
So what does this phobia have to do with trauma? I am told that the some survivors of trauma feel a similar reaction to, say, suddenly having a story of rape come up in their class through a reading or discussion. That terrible feeling that you’d do anything just to escape, maybe by leaving the class, never coming to class in the first place, or just finding yourself unable to focus. And then there’s the fear that this might happen at any moment, with no warning. What if I grasshoppers might just show up in any classroom? Well, I wouldn’t stay in school very long. I couldn’t. Maybe some people could, but I couldn’t. A lot of trauma survivors do end up dropping out of school or performing worse when they stay. Others gut it out and do exceptionally well, to be sure. But there is a cost either way. The mental and physical cost of anxiety is very real, both for individuals and for society.
If I could have a sort of grasshopper trigger warning every time I was about to see a grasshopper, I would be a lot better off. I might even be able to get over the phobia since one of the things that makes it so difficult to treat is the unpredictability of grasshoppers themselves. For a while I was doing exposure therapy and I got to the point where I could look at pictures and even videos of grasshoppers without having such a strong response. Even that took a long time. I had to know I was going to do it, and, as predicted, knowing I had to do it was often worse than doing it. But in a supportive environment where the expectations were clear, I could. (Compare that to a couple of times over the past few days where facebook friends have shared pictures of grasshoppers and I threw my phone after unexpectedly scrolling past them.)
If I had stuck with exposure therapy, maybe I wouldn’t have the phobia anymore, but it was very difficult. It takes a lot of bravery and resolve to do exposure therapy. And as helpful as those positive experiences where you have the stimulus, but don’t have the panic response are, unexpected triggers will re-entrench the response that much more. That is to say, about the worst thing you could do to someone with a phobia is just spring triggers on them with no warning. I’m guessing it is similar for people with trauma. It will absolutely not help a survivor of rape to force them with no warning to read a narrative about rape or listen to a bumbling class discussion that reinforces rape myths. On the other hand, it might help a lot to know that there will be a thoughtful and respectful discussion of the topic so they can be ready.
I wouldn’t expect the world to give me grasshopper trigger warnings. How could I? But if something like 1 in 5 or 1 in 3 students also had a grasshopper phobia, it would be a whole lot more reasonable to expect others to know this and take it into account. It takes work to build a classroom—or a society—where everyone can participate meaningfully. Part of that work is taking into account your students’ life experiences, to the extent that you can know what they are. Whenever I meet someone new and expect that we might be in a situation together where we’ll encounter a grasshopper, I give them a sort of reverse trigger warning. I tell them that I have this phobia, and that I might suddenly start acting weird, running away or suddenly stopping in my tracks. I try to prepare them for my own erratic behavior. We can’t expect this of trauma survivors, but we can work on the assumption that any college classroom contains a few of them. Providing basic trigger warnings about sexual assault, given that knowledge, is the minimally decent thing to do in creating an environment where everyone can succeed.
Being against trigger warnings is like being the camp counselors who didn’t understand how serious my phobia was. Perhaps they thought a few days in the wilderness would be the best cure for a little fear of the unknown. But phobias and trauma aren’t just a little fear of the unknown that requires gutting it out, resiliency, or any of the other vaguely masculine code words of the movement against trigger warnings. They are serious psychological problems that require care, attention, and empathy.