Trauma and PTSD

Are Trigger Warnings Useful?

Trigger warnings: overused or helpful?

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, and this is probably where accusations of people being “snowflakes” fall (and as a quick aside, I really dislike that term/concept). But if we’re talking about triggering re-experiencing, 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 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, but if I’m talking about methods, I would definitely put a warning so that people have enough information to make the choice that’s right for them.

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?

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62 thoughts on “Are Trigger Warnings Useful?”

  1. I think it’s respectful to your readers to put a possible trigger warning so they can have some control whether they are prepared to go there or not. I appreciate the warning and think you should definitely Italy use the warnings when you are talking about sensitive subjects particularly those related to traumas people may have experienced.

  2. If others want them, that’s fine, but they don’t help me. I don’t get “triggered” into despair by the standard stuff. Mine are more subtle and no one would be able to warn me. Could be a blackbird reminding me of my mom’s favorite song. Could be a location reminding me of my last disastrous relationship…

  3. I will write a trigger warning if I remember when I’m writing, for the simple fact that simple words or other people’s experiences can send me to very very dark places and I would hate to think I have set anyone else’s trauma responses off because I know how hard it is. Also as odd as it may sound I put warnings on sometimes for myself, when I’m having bad days and I want to read to see how far I have come, the last thing I need is a trigger to hit me unawares. Xx

  4. I’m not done reading yet and actually have been dealing with triggers all morning, stuff that happened on the streets where there were no doors to close or lock to keep us barricaded from intruders and we were often all out in the open and our sleeping spots were searched out by thieves and vandals and we were often stalked. And then, worse than stalked. Gender, race, age and orientation were almost irrelevant. We were all “easy marks.”

    This is like the third post in a row that’s dealt with this subject, so I might just take a walk and air out. But I wanted to ask the definition of “snowflake” which I had not heard before, looked up and got two different meanings, one of a political nature, one not. I’ll be back a bit later.

    1. I think snowflake is most commonly used to refer to someone who’s fragile in the sense of being easily offended. In a political sense, I think it tends to be used by people on the right of the political spectrum to refer to “bleeding heart liberals” folks who get on board with minority social causes.

      1. If that’s its most common definition, than I don’t think I like the concept much either. I read the Urban Dictionary definition, which said it was not political but just referred to an extremely sensitive person who gets bent out of shape easily. Another definition seemed to suggest that it referred to people in the alt-right and white nationalists who have an inflated sense of identity, thinking themselves superior to people of other races or social classes. I guess that came from as early as the 1860’s. In any case, the first page of my DuckDuckGo browser running a search of “snowflake definition” yields about five separate but related definitions.

        Seems to be one of those words like “fruitcake.” Both seem derogatory..

  5. Triggers are non-existent to me at present. But I see how my daughter reacts to movies, everyday conversation, and certainly other forms of communication, such as body language or eye contact. Being triggered is a response to constantly being in fight or flight mode. Honestly, Im not sure what reversed my ability to overlook common communications and keep moving forward. If I knew, I could help my daughter, who unfortunately was traumatized by people in this world, much like me. And even when I worked overtime to protect her. Simply evil times. Innocence is less protected than ever before. Or maybe its the same and just talked openly more than before. Regardless, maybe less talk of triggers and more communicating how to be a decent human being?

  6. I finished reading it. Clarifying, your post did not trigger me. I was already triggered before I started reading the post. I have to follow certain procedures now.

      1. Between writing the tuneup and reading your entry I read this horrible Facebook post with a trigger warning on top. Apparently it’s a famous post that’s gotten around, but I’m not sure I should identify it as it literally made me sick to my stomach.

          1. About trigger warnings, I don’t believe they are useful to the reader. They may be useful to the writer, so that the writer will not come across to the reader as being insensitive or ignorant, had the writer not chosen to display one. That’s my take on them, anyway.

  7. I’m a huge fan of trigger warnings. When in doubt, I’d use one. I put one on a blog post once, and a friend of mine wrote, “Wow, I sort of wish I’d taken your trigger warning seriously.” In that instance, he wasn’t triggered in a PTSD sense, but what I’d written was graphic and disturbing. I use trigger warnings for that, too, if I need to express dark stuff and I don’t want to risk horrifying my readers. But I totally agree with you that PTSD is a serious and major reason to use them. Oh, and I also hate the derogatory snowflakes term. My former best friend, Kristi, always posted this stuff on her social media like memes that said, “I’m a wooden spoon survivor.” I asked her to quit posting that stuff, and she called me a snowflake. [Eyeroll.]

    I usually use one for suicide out of consideration, but I have no suicide triggers and don’t know exactly how they work, so I was glad to read your clarification of mentioning it versus discussing suicide techniques. That makes sense!!

  8. I think putting the trigger warning is just something that’s considered a common courtesy. I would still read on if something that triggers me had a warning. I think I’m a sucker for punishment 😅

      1. I do appreciate trigger warnings when they are used appropriately. An article i came across a few months ago which was COVID related, the title of it was “This is what you’ll see before you die of COVID” or something along them lines. Along with a video as the main feature so that across social media as soon as you saw the post advertised, all you would see is the title and a short video of a Doctor about to insert a breathing tube down a patient’s throat to sedate them/place them into an induced coma.

        What shocked me was that one of the mainstream news websites aired this and how they got away with it. No trigger warnings were stated anywhere. My experience in ICU is still very raw and its bloody hard to forget. I thought I had been doing OK managing with the flashbacks and nightmares, but thanks to that article being advertised, I have lost count how many times the video has suddenly popped to the front of my mind.

        I understand everyone needs to be aware of certain things, but in an informed way, not to the point where the reader/viewer breaks down in tears because of ill-respected articles. Rant over.

  9. I think you hit the nail on the head:

    ” approach it in a controlled manner rather than throwing someone in at the top of their fear hierarchy.”

  10. As someone who suffers from “‘Complex PTSD,” stemming from “violent sexual abuse/assault,” I can say with some confidence that “triggers” are wildly misunderstood.

    For instance, my husband is extremely conscious about “sexual content” warnings on video/television media; but didn’t understand why driving down a particular street (where an assault occurred), or walking at night, was distressing to me.

    And then, there is the issue of trust. People feel hurt – or pushed away – from victims of sexual trauma. I have heard mothers of victims say, “She/He doesn’t trust me anymore.” It’s difficult for them to understand that the survivor doesn’t trust anyone anymore.

    Trauma rewires our brains. Much like learning it’s dangerous to touch a hot stove, avoidance can be learned through traumatic experience.

    The research is vast, and sometimes conflicting, but important.

  11. I started putting TW on some posts as you know, because I wanted to help the reader choose to read it or not. So they had warning.
    I only started adding it though, after a friend was triggered by something I experienced, which was similar to her. So after that, I added them to future posts when necessary, no matter what sensitive topic it was and checked some past ones during some heavy stuff and edited accordingly.

    Now later on, I realise how having a post marked with a TW is helpful to me, so I can choose whether to read at all, or at a better time.

  12. I didn’t know what the term trigger warning meant until I read through your post. I think they are useful and helpful. While words won’t upset me (except to, you know, piss me off) there are images that I would definitely prefer to avoid.

  13. We rely on trigger warnings. We are not subscribing to exposure therapy for our ptsd right now, so we don’t want to read about someone else’s childhood sexual trauma in detail or someone’s sexual exploits in detail (happened today because no trigger warning).

    The trigger warning allows us to not read. We usually don’t read when there is a trigger warning.

    As for trigger warnings for the general public, if headlines were not click bait, and were accurate, readers could ascertain if they wanted to read the topic.

  14. I’ve learned in recent years to speak up about triggers, what triggers me, how it impacts my behaviour. The family doesn’t always clue in but at least they are more aware. That’s a step…

    Great article as always. ❤️

  15. Great post Ashley.
    I trigger warn a family member when I have to update her buy message about other family members. It means that she can choose when to read it or even have her spouse read it if she is feeling too vulnerable.

  16. They place warnings on movies, tv shows, etc., concerning that it may contain violence, graphic violence, adult situations.
    There would be times I would appreciate a “trigger warning”. Things like abuse of women, children, those if they had a warning I would not read them. Those things bring up some pretty terrible memories in my childhood. If I am watching a show and for some reason those things are being acted out I always turn the channel.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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”.

  23. 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.

  24. 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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