Are Trigger Warnings Useful?

Trigger warnings: helpful or overused - graphic of a warning sign

I saw the topic of trigger warnings circulating in the blogosphere recently, and I thought I’d chime in with my own thoughts.

In a very general sense, a trigger is one thing causing another to occur. What’s particular to people with a past trauma history is that what’s being triggered is re-experiencing. That means re-experiencing traumatic events as though they’re occurring in the present, i.e. having a flashback.

Arguments around trigger warnings

When we’re talking about trigger warnings, to me, it makes a difference what we’re talking about triggering. If it’s offence or distress in general, there’s probably not a very compelling argument for a trigger warning. This is probably where accusations of people being “snowflakes” fall (and as a quick aside, I really dislike that term/concept). If we’re talking about triggering re-experiencing, though, that’s a whole other conversation.

One of the arguments against trigger warnings is that avoidance actually reinforces PTSD, while exposure is helpful. While that may be true in a general sense, on an individual level, it seems a bit patronizing. Even if someone is doing prolonged exposure work, the therapist is going to approach it in a controlled manner; they’re not going to just throw someone in at the top of their fear hierarchy. I see trauma-related trigger warnings as a means of informed consent. It’s a way to allow people to make choices about what works for them at that point in time.

Who’s triggering what?

It sounds like there’s been a lot of debate over this in higher education, where being exposed to new ideas that challenge you is a fundamental part of the process. An article in The Atlantic says that about half of American university professors use trigger warnings. A couple of studies have concluded that they’re not effective, and might actually prime students to react in a distressed manner. However, one of the studies didn’t include participants with PTSD, and the other included some, but that wasn’t the focus. That seems like it completely misses the point, and it really comes back to whether one is triggering distress/offence or traumatic re-experiencing.

Another area where trigger warnings may be helpful is content related to suicide. Studies have shown that certain styles of media reporting of suicides can lead to a suicide contagion effect. One of the riskiest things to talk about is suicide methods. If I’m using “suicide” is in a blog post title, I’m not going to add a trigger warning about suicide. If I’m talking about methods, though, I would definitely put a warning so that people have enough information to make the choice that’s right for them.

Being respectful

I think putting trigger warnings for common trauma triggers and suicide specifics is a way of showing respect for people who live with the effects of trauma or who are high-risk with regards to suicide. In that context, I don’t see it as avoidance; I see it as a way of allowing people to go in with their eyes open.

When this gets talked about as being the same issue as not wanting to offend/distress people, that can inadvertently minimize the experiences of people who’ve been through some really difficult stuff. It can also turn it into more of a political correctness issue, and I don’t think that’s helpful for anyone.

What are your thoughts on trigger warnings?

60 thoughts on “Are Trigger Warnings Useful?”

  1. I think the demand for them is sometimes overused and I tend to agree with the experts. However, I also feel like who am I to tell someone what is helpful or harmful to them? If people feel that they help, I am more than happy to use them when needed. I agree about using them when talking in detail of suicide, but the very mention of suicide doesn’t seem to warrant a trigger warning. It’s a delicate area.

  2. I think it’s very true that while there are some common triggers because people often have similar major traumatic experiences, it is also very true that a whole lot of triggers aren’t very obvious and it would be difficult to warn people because there are so many things that could be potentially triggering to someone that we may not even realise, just as there may be so many different types of traumatic experiences. And I also feel like sometimes with such less obvious triggers, it may be difficult to warn people in a concise way, without already triggering something for them.
    It’s surely true that exposure is better than avoidance but I totally agree that making the decision for someone by not giving them a choice is patronising. It’s also not just a thing of choice but of being prepared. I don’t have PTSD or anything like that but I have a lot of anxieties and I would imagine it works the same way in PTSD as it does for me, or maybe even more so, namely that it’s much easier to handle the exposure when you know in advance that it’s going t happen and can mentally, or in any other way, prepare yourself for what’s coming, rather than just suddenly being thrown into it. And I don’t know if that’s actually the case for sure, but I would imagine so, that for people with major traumas it wouldn’t actually be beneficial on just any stage of their healing to expose themselves totally without warning and could set people off rather than help them progress in any meaningful way.
    As for my blog, I do try to remember to trigger warn my posts whenn writing about some commonly triggering topics when they’re graphic, or some less common sometimes if I know that more people who read me deal with a particular trigger that I’m going to talk about.

  3. This is a good topic. I do agree that if graphic content were the focus of the writing or reporting a trigger warning would be important. It allows the reader /listener to make a safe decision for their own self. The warning provides decision making. I think more work in understanding the differences you point out is highly important. Offense is different than triggers related to traumatic exposure.

  4. It’s difficult for me to know when to use a trigger warning. I try to think of anyone I might bother and it seems like nearly everything would require one. I still try, LOL.

  5. I certainly think trigger warnings are a good idea and the reader can make the decision themselves whether or not to go further into the content. A topic that one person deems as harmless could cause great distress for someone else so I agree that adding them in is respectful to your readers! Thanks for sharing x

    1. That’s so true that what’s harmless for one person isn’t harmless for everyone, and as someone else commented, that’s where having a title that actually reflects the post’s content can be helpful.

  6. I’m personally for trigger warnings but I’ve seen some confusing trigger warnings where words like mother or father aren’t just TWed are censored (written like f/ther) because the general word itself “could be triggering”.

  7. I’ve used TWs a couple of times when talking about familial rape (ugh, even typing it) as I know that turns my stomach and makes me feel anxious. That said, like I mentioned above, I still read on, despite TWs. I get what you’re saying tho’ Ashley.

  8. As a new blogger I hadn’t thought about using ‘trigger warnings ‘ in my offerings before reading your article. I’m glad I came across your post and think I would want to error on the side of consideration to the reader if I choose to blog about a more trigger8kind of topic. It just seems like the more kind way to offer subject matter for consumption by an unsuspecting reader. I had to laugh at the comment about reading on anyway, that’s totally what I would do. Glutton for punishment indeed! We humans are the worst at taking care of ourselves … or maybe just a special breed of us out here. Which makes me think about trigger warnings as an invitation to self flagellation, oh my, I’ve talked myself around a circle and now, not sure how I feel about them. Lol. Responsible or irresponsible, perhaps it’s impossible to take care of everybody? We just do the best we can hey!?

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