Trigger Warnings – What’s the Point?

It seems that the topic of trigger warnings has recently exploded through the internet and beyond, and I have to say I have been somewhat concerned about a lot of the things I’ve been reading. It seems like there are some big discrepancies about what people think the point of a trigger warning is, so I’m hoping I can shed a little light here.

First, what is a “trigger warning”?

A “trigger warning” is when someone makes a conscientious effort to label content as something that could potentially trigger episodes associated with mental illness and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). As far as content on the internet is concerned, this tag is usually provided by the creator of the writing or video associated with it.

Are “trigger warnings” considered censorship?

No. Censorship is the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive”. In the situations where a “trigger warning” tag is being used, none of the content is being withheld or removed. In fact, the point that none of this content is withheld is part of the reason the “trigger warning” exists. If the content in question was eliminated, there would be no need for a warning. Likewise, this warning does not bar people from reaching, viewing, or sharing the content, therefore nothing is suppressed.

Why would someone use a “trigger warning” tag?

The biggest misconception I’ve been seeing among the current dialogue around “trigger warning” tags is that they are used to help people avoid content which may be “offensive”.

This is not the case. I say that because “trigger warning” tags are not called “offense warnings”. They are called trigger warnings. Here’s the difference:

In a situation where I become offended, I might feel flushed. I might feel disgusted, or annoyed, or angry. I might leave angry comments or write angry emails. I might feel sad, or defensive, or any number of things that any human being might consider a typical reaction to something someone doesn’t agree with on a base level.

Now (and here I am going to employ the *trigger warning – sexual assault* tag simply out of curtosey) I want to give you a brief look at what living with PTSD is like, and what I experience when triggered by something.

In 2007 I was sexually assaulted. I don’t have a very clear memory of what happened, but I do have pretty vivid memories of the days that came after. The injuries I sustained. The hysteria, and screaming at people who came near me on the street. The seemingly constant panic attacks.

Seven years later I have worked hard with several therapists to lessen my PTSD symptoms. Things have gotten quite a bit better, I finally am able to have a sex life again. I can ride on the bus without having a panic attack when people bump into me, but after all that there are still boundaries I have to draw in my daily life. I can’t watch tv or movies with rape scenes (which is getting harder and harder lately as this seems to be becoming more and more common). I generally don’t allow myself to read about rape, frankly just that one little word (especially coming upon it in an unexpected place) is enough to send me spiraling back seven years.

Being triggered (having my PTSD symptoms switched “on”) by images or words associated with sexual assault is far beyond the notion of being “offended”. I find myself being sent back immediately where I mentally re-live the horror of what happened to me over, and over, and over again. It replays in my mind on repeat, but it doesn’t simply replay. It is more like re-living it. 

My throat closes up and I can’t breathe, and I start crying uncontrollably. I freeze, and nobody (not my boyfriend, or friends, or therapist) can say anything to me to bring me out of it. My whole body starts to shake violently in fear and sometimes I faint. My stomach becomes a giant knot and even after the flashbacks subside leaving me shaky and weak, the sense of repulsion is so great I can hardly eat without vomiting.

*end trigger warning* 

This kind of episode is enough to ruin an entire day for me. Having bipolar disorder on top of that means when my PTSD symptoms are triggered, it also often triggers intense depression or mixed episodes, which can leave me suicidal or homicidal and incapacitated for days, weeks, months…

I have to be extremely careful how I spend my time, the people I talk to, the media I can watch, and the things I read. A large part of my life is about avoiding the things that trigger me, and though I am getting closer every day to being able to do all the things I used to do, this is a serious condition that I work with my therapist on constantly to slowly desensitize myself. Can you see how that might be a pitfall? How easy it can be, especially with train-of-thought blogs, to stumble into something I couldn’t see coming? I was surprised to find myself triggered just the other day when watching Downtown Abbey Season 4 and I spent months waiting for that at the library (and that is a show that airs on PBS!). All I’m saying is that a little warning would have been nice!

Realistically, do topics like suicide or self-harm or abuse or sexual assault offend me? Not at all. In fact, I think they are important topics that need to be talked about. However, there are people that might come to harm by reading about these topics, particularly ones in the mental health community who are unstable, trying to take care of themselves, but are attempting to reach out to other bloggers.

I don’t care about the content of tv shows or movies or blogs, and I don’t think anyone who supports the idea of “trigger warnings” wants to stifle the stories or ideas people have. I know there are a lot of people who enjoy or consider particularly triggering content to be educational, so we need to keep writing about the difficult situations in our lives. That is not the issue here.

The mental health blogging community faces different challenges than those of, say, food bloggers, or fitness bloggers, or travel bloggers. Our content can be sensitive, but our readers are often also sensitive… not because they are easily offended, but because they are people living with symptoms of mental illness they often have little or no control over. How long do you think these people will keep reading if they’re being triggered by content presented to them?

While each person out there has the choice of whether or not to read something, they need to be able to make a choice that is right for them. That’s the end game when it comes to mental health, right? Doing what is best for each of us individually? I simply believe making that choice becomes much easier (and safer) when there is some kind of indication that the content might not be suitable for everyone.

Maybe that doesn’t mean using the words “trigger warning”. Maybe that means being conscientious about the title of our blogs reflecting the content, or suggesting the content is sensitive, or any number of things. I’m not here to suggest we all adhere to one set of rules, but does it seem that far fetched to respect our readers and want to help them enjoy the work we’ve enjoyed creating?

Again, I’m not here to stifle the the notion of creativity of free speech, just to show a little respect and care for my readers who, like me, may have lived through something traumatic. I consider “trigger warning” tags to be a common curtosey, a way to let my more sensitive viewers avoid debilitating episodes that have an extremely negative impact on their lives. If a choice I make can help others make good choices for themselves, it feels like a no-brainer to me.

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12 responses to “Trigger Warnings – What’s the Point?

  1. rosewiltshire

    Succinctly and brilliantly covered. Thank you xx

  2. Thank you for addressing this topic in such an intelligent manner. I just blogged about this topic a few days ago. I do use trigger alerts, not just in my own blog but for my International Bipolar Foundation blog. I would never want to trigger anyone – ever. I did realize last week I had become too cautious in my writing, holding back on details that are non-triggering, but I was worried I’d offend readers with the content. I digress! My main point is that I would never want to trigger anyone – ever. Thanks again for a thorough and thoughtful post.

  3. I have read several articles now about trigger warnings, that I did not agree with because these authors were putting them out as “censorship.” You explained yourself very well here, and emphasized just WHY a TW is not censorship, but a safety measure for people who may be sensitive to a certain topic.

  4. Reblogged this on RosieSmrtiePants and commented:
    I have read several articles lately about this topic that I didn’t agree with — that is, people (educated, intelligent people) are saying that trigger warnings constitute censorship. Sarah clearly explains in her post just how that is not the case. I found myself nodding along with nearly every sentence, and I hope that you will click on to read Sarah’s full article. I rarely reblog, almost never actually, but this one really struck me.

  5. Very thorough article, I hadn’t come across this topic before thanks for bringing it to light.

  6. Yes, yes, and yes again. Wonderfully written.

  7. This needed to be said. Thank you for doing so in such an honest and straightforward manner.

  8. Thank you for educating me and setting the record straight. You are always on point. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I must admit that I had a visceral reaction to the words that was unwarranted. Of course, we must be sensitive to one another, sensitive to how our work, our words, may affect others. Compassion is key.

  9. Reblogged this on Kitt O'Malley and commented:
    Bipolar Curious wrote this very thoughtful blog post regarding trigger warnings. I stand corrected and educated.

  10. Great post – succinct and thorough!

  11. Pingback: Language and Mental Illness; A Different Point of View | bi[polar] curious

  12. Pingback: Trust, Poetry, Cravings, Language, and Gun Violence: Mental Health Monday | A Way With Words

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