(It may be needless to say, but this post will make reference to things like violence or sexual assault, but no such things will be discussed at length.)
The term “Trigger Warning” has become somewhat of a weird fixation in a lot of social discourse. For most of us (at least here), trigger warnings are just a useful tool to make sure everyone is safe and healthy. To those further on the right-wing, however, it is often treated as a joke, and something to snarl about the “regressive left”.
For those uninformed, a “trigger” is any stimulus that can cause a strong emotional response. This can be a word, a sound, an image, a sensation, even just a concept. These triggers are usually associated with negative emotional responses, such as intense feelings of anxiety. The terms “emotional trigger” and “trauma trigger” share similarities, but are meaningfully different. These are also distinct from something that is stressful or uncomfortable to think about but does not cause a strong involuntary emotional reaction. (To those with education on psychology, or anyone for that matter: please inform me if I can refine this definition! )
Despite how many polemicists might speak of them, triggers are not a new concept, by any means. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has a history in study back to 1952. “Shell shock” and “battle fatigue” referred to this, and we can find it in art going back to Shakespeare and in records going back to Assyria. But it’s not just limited to those who experience war. Survivors of abuse and assault experience this, and triggers can come from many different experiences. Triggers can also have an effect on those who do not have PTSD. (Again, inform me if I can refine this immensely brief background!)
I more often use the term “content warning”, for the reason that, in my mind, it more accurately represents its use. Informing someone of the contents of something, particularly the more visceral pieces, is just common courtesy. We have rating systems in place for similar reasons. In fact, I often just say the word “warning”. It’s just a courteous thing to warn the audience “hey, this gets into some heavy stuff”. This doesn’t just help trauma survivors, but also those who just want to know what they’re getting into. Many use it to know what they should and shouldn’t go to, but many also use it to simply brace themselves for oncoming information.
I also recognize, though, that this has to do with my own relationship with triggers. It would be inaccurate to say that I have any form of PTSD, but I do have strong emotional triggers. A small set; those that I know could probably be counted on my hand. The problem being that, more often than not, these are not things that would ever come up in a content warning or trigger warning. I experience voluntary responses to banal things that comes up in everyday conversation. My response has a lot to do with my mood and the situation. Sometimes, it just causes a twinge of stress. Other times, I have entire emotional meltdowns. There’s no easy way to warn for this; these normally go completely unmentioned in warnings. I know that I’m not an exception in this regard, of course; someone once mentioned to me of an emotional trigger from the sound of a ticking clock. However, that response was the product of their trauma. My responses do not come from trauma; they come from my history and neurodivergency. I don’t think the term “trauma trigger” is applicable for me. Point being: triggers can come in many different forms and can cause a wide range of responses.
So, I guess, some starter questions for the discussion:
How should warnings be handled and presented?
Why do you think trigger warnings have become such a hot topic in social discourse? What kind of arguments to you present to those who think they’re asinine?
What kind of language do you use around warnings? Do you prefer “content” or “trigger”?
Do you think warnings prove effective? How do you think they could be improved?
Do you think there are systems that could be put in place for warnings that would make them more effective?
If you have emotional triggers or trauma triggers, how do you handle them? What responses do you experience? Do you have any methods you use to help yourself?
Do warnings help you? How do you go about avoiding the triggers? How do you go about sharing your triggers with others, and those close to you?
On the flip-side, if you need to know about someone’s triggers, how do you feel is the most helpful way to be informed about it?
If you come from a psychological background, can you provide us with any enlightenment to the dynamics at play here, or provide any advice?
(For obvious reasons, sharing of the actual nature of anyone’s emotional triggers should be voluntary, so please don’t ask people if they don’t wish to share. I’ve deliberately avoided expressing mine, even though may choose to do so later. At the same time, please be cautious to tag potentially upsetting subject matter if it comes up.)