Bang, bang

If you run in the same virtual circles that I do, you’ll have noticed “trigger warnings” popping up more and more often. These are typically then given a specification like “sexual assault”, “eating disorders”, “abuse”, or anything else that is described within the video or article that may have a triggering effect on somebody who has dealt with similar issues in the past.

This is much more than a simple movie rating; while there may be some overlap, the latter are often aimed at not causing offence whereas “trigger warnings” are specifically looking to avoid causing anyone any direct or indirect harm from the nature of the content.

The First World War brought “shell shock” into our vocabulary a century ago; soldiers witnessing atrocities on the front line were literally unable to get those memories out of their heads. Now, we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Having a couple of family members battling PTSD themselves, I have witnessed the trouble they have garnering support from other family members and friends; when a disorder is “invisible” and usually entails withdrawal from the outside world, it can be confused with moodiness, irritability, or selfishness.

So it’s not surprising that very few people really think about the impact of their words, attitudes, or actions on another person’s emotional wellbeing. From what I have seen, it seems that a lot of us aren’t really in tune with our own emotional wellbeing, blocking out any issues any way we can (keeping busy, surrounding ourselves with people who don’t notice or care, getting intoxicated, etc).

Personally, I was pretty much in the same boat until I read Gena‘s post about “Tuning Out Food Noise“. I had often had to leave the office lunch space to finish lunch at my desk when conversation would turn to the latest fad diet my colleagues were on or had read about, and I find it emotionally draining to hear people brag about their intense training regimens. For a long time I put it down to having had that conversation a few too many times and just not wanting to bother with it yet again, but now I realise it was genuine (albeit mild) anxiety – a combination of wishing I could educate people on respecting their bodies and minds whilst knowing I would never be taken seriously, but also an undertone of wishing I was still the one who trained the hardest and ate the healthiest. There was more than a hint of “If these people can do it, why can’t I?”.

That realisation really opened my eyes to the power of triggers.

Previously, I had thought them the reserve of individuals who had experienced or witnessed an intensely traumatic event. I didn’t really think that a comment, opinion or attitude could bring back negative thoughts or emotions that one used to experience, but it completely makes sense; competitiveness and perfectionism are traits associated with eating disorders, so if an individual with a history of disordered eating encounters another individual exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, it does create a pull back to those old habits, the ones that in an odd way felt safe and reliable in their extremeness.

So now you get my beef (uh… tofu?) with “fitspiration” and pretty much all things fitness-related online.

But then, how to avoid triggering others? We can hardly start censoring the #cleaneating hashtag, partly because censoring is not an adequate long-term solution to any problem, and partly because Instagram would simply cease to exist and who knows what that would do the world. Nor can we realistically start banning casual conversation about diet and exercise, and while initiatives like the “No Diet Talk” badge are great ways to create safe spaces, they don’t really solve the issue that many of us are being triggered into self-punishing thoughts and behaviours without even being conscious of it.

Obviously, the ideal scenario would be that we eradicate eating disorders, abuse of any kind, and all traumatic situations and replace them with endless compassion and consideration for fellow living creatures. But in the interim, here are some ways we could avoid unwittingly pushing anyone into dark head spaces (I am keeping these specific to health and fitness as I don’t feel that I know enough about other mental health conditions):

  1. There is no need to brag about one’s extreme training or diet regime. If it comes up as a natural part of the discussion, explaining elements that are relevant should be fine (e.g. “Might go for a run today, what are you up to?”, “No thanks, I’m not actually in the mood for anything sweet right now”).
  2. There is no need to express judgement towards somebody else’s lifestyle choices (e.g. “So when are you going to take up running?”, “Wow, you really do have a sweet tooth!”) – remember that raised eyebrows and smirks all count!
  3. There is no need for extremes when discussing fitness, diet, or lifestyle (e.g. “Running really is the only way to burn body fat”, “Added sugar is so bad for us, it has absolutely no place in our diet ever”), and remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

I hope that just being aware of the impact of triggers can help everyone be a little more conscious of what they’re saying and how it might affect the person they’re saying it to. As the internet is a big wide-open space, I guess that’s why I post far fewer nutrition and training tips than you might expect for a health and fitness blogger.

These apply to anyone in the fitness industry, too, no matter how much it has become the norm for us to Instagram photos of our healthy Tupperwared lunches and let the Twittersphere know just how wrecked our legs are from that plyo circuit. I constantly question myself for giving very vague diet advice, showing no evidence of training myself to the brink of collapse, for not blogging more about my latest healthy eating find or sharing my high-intensity workout. But I believe the risks outweigh the rewards.

As well as taking responsibility for our words and actions towards others, we more than ever need to take responsibility for our own psychological wellbeing. So if you do feel that you come across anything that may be triggering, click right away from it or politely steer the conversation away. And if I have ever dodged your questions or ignored your comments don’t take it too personally… but, maybe, ask yourself why.