Trigger warnings: belittling or empathetic?

The first time I started noticing trigger warnings preceding posts, photos and articles, I was relieved; we were finally being considerate of vulnerable audiences. In a previous post, I discussed how constant exposure to harrowing online content may have severe psychological consequences.  I had thought trigger warnings may be an opportunity for audiences to decide what they are prepared to see and set a limit when it becomes unbearable. I was confused when I noticed people mocking the use of trigger warnings on online spaces.

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What are trigger warnings?

Trigger warnings are the cues that let the reader know the ensuing content may be deeply upsetting. In psychological terms, a trigger causes the onset of an emotional reaction. It is commonly used in discussions around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as certain smells, sensations or images can evoke traumatic memories. Just as a gun’s trigger releases the bullet, we say these smells, sensations or images trigger the anxiety entangled in traumatic memories.

In 2012, trigger warnings started appearing in feminist blogging forums, to prepare their readers for topics on issues of particular concern to feminists (such as rape, eating disorders, terminal illnesses and domestic violence). Since then, trigger warnings have been appearing all over the internet and precede any content that may be considered offensive and/or upsetting. This includes body dismorphia, racism, terrorism, depression, homophobia and abuse. Currently, students are vying for trigger warnings to precede potentially disturbing or ‘triggering’ content in their coursework. Using trigger warnings are even being used satirically, as some find the extensive use of them ridiculous.


Are trigger warnings necessary – or even useful?

According to psychologists, trigger warnings are not particularly effective in protecting vulnerable audiences. By nature, these triggers are rational and predictable. They do not manifest from the words we label traumatic experiences. They are uniquely attached to the specific experiences and of the person. They lie within the individualised details a person remembers during the occurrence of the trauma. These can be smells, accents, specific shades of colour, sounds, time of the day or tastes.

Psychologists and psychiatrists help those with PTSD in an on-going, tightly controlled way. To avoid a trigger is counter-productive and only creates a victim out of those with the condition. Prolonged exposure therapy (PET) is an approach that helps sufferers examine how they react to certain triggers and then slowly engage with these triggers. This allows them to lose power over the trigger and their quality of life improves.

While I may not be a professional, I wonder if constant, unsupervised exposure to traumatic content may hinder the progress of psychological intervention. I would also like to play devil’s advocate and suggest that perhaps that trigger warnings are an interesting way of gauging someone’s rehabilitative progress. Perhaps, a person’s reaction to a trigger warning may indicate if he or she should seek help to cope with the disturbing topic.

In an article by Financial Times, some survivors of trauma felt that the trigger warnings were patronising. They are seen as another way of alienating these survivors from ‘normal’ audiences and that they send the message that they are not strong enough to cope with everyday content. Additionally, some people see them as triggers within themselves.


Are they, then, a complete waste of time?

I realise that it is impossible – nor is it ideal – to completely shelter people from the harsh realities of society. I do not believe we must always try to escape the things that disturb us. But consider the grating effects of the constant exposure of the society’s dark qualities.

As a woman, I am constantly surrounded by marks of misogyny and patriarchy – both in real life and online. Perhaps on a particular day, these indicators are overwhelming present as I made my way through my routines. I may see a trigger warning before a post about a sexist issue and decide that I would rather move on past it.

It does not mean I do not want to see patriarchy as a problem, nor do I want to resist confronting it. I do not need to have PTSD to feel worn by the existence of patriarchy. Choosing to scroll past an article about (yet another) rape or case of gender violence simply means that, for that moment, I am choosing temporary relief from it. It could make the difference between hope for better days and complete despair.


Is there a compromise?

Use of diction is incredibly important when it comes to talking about sensitive topics that involve many vulnerable people. It would seem that, in some cases, the phrase ‘trigger warning’ has become a trigger in itself, as the word ‘trigger’ has strong connotations.

Perhaps, then, the alternative solution is to use ‘content warnings’. By replacing the word ‘trigger’, we decrease the risk of anticipatory panic and instead give the reader the opportunity to be completely in control of what they want to expose themselves too. It does not decide for them what is alarming, nor does it assume a person is mentally prepared to cope with everything they see at any given moment of the day.


[Header image credit: Kayleigh Pereira]


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