You’ve probably seen trigger warnings appearing in news articles, blog posts, on Amazon and sometimes ahead of radio or television news presentations.

Some universities and high schools may provide trigger warnings for courses or books where traumatic events are covered.

The overuse of trigger warnings was recently discussed amongst a group of friends, after uproar over the Politico blog claiming that “Western Lit is being shot to death by trigger warnings”.

I was surprised how many people were vehemently against providing any trigger warnings.

The comments on The Passive Voice’s repost of the Politico blog post are interesting - mostly balanced between pro- and anti- warnings, and with a good dollop of common sense from many commenters, along with some troll-like responses.

What do trigger warnings cover?

Trauma triggers make a person remember a devastating traumatic memory. Often, the memory is felt as if you are re-living it, the feelings, scents, sounds, and images are typically overwhelming.

A trigger can be anything that makes you remember, it can be a rape scene, an angry raised voice, or something completely innocuous, like the smell of the cigarettes that the attacker reeked of, or the sound of a siren.

Trigger warnings are to there to help PTSD sufferers either avoid the triggering material, or brace themselves so they aren’t badly triggered.

PTSD doesn’t develop from all traumatic experiences. The traumatic event has to be devastating in impact, and is typically violent or abusive.

Of course, trigger warnings can’t cover everyone’s triggers. They do cover many of the main ones: graphic violence, child abuse, rape, and suicide.

Why the controversy about trigger warnings?

Some psychologists advocate avoidance of triggers, to allow PTSD sufferers to go about their lives without having to (so often) re-live the trauma. This is a good approach when the trauma is too new, too raw, and you are not yet ready to work with it.

Other psychologists support the exposure model, stating that prolonged, systemic exposure to trauma triggers is desensitising. They believe that trigger warnings lead to avoidance, and that leads to depression and reinforces PTSD.

In fact, exposure therapy seems to be the most successful over the long term, seeming to support the trigger warning opponents position. But what these people forget is that exposure is systematic, planned and prepared for.

Example: Say that you were afraid of spiders, many people are terrified of them.

"Just get over it" or "you are too sensitive, toughen up" is unlikely to make you unafraid.

Having spiders randomly thrown on you throughout the day will probably just worsen your fear.

But preparing for a close encounter, and slowly learning to hold a spider might just help - this is exposure therapy.

And that’s what trigger warnings do - they allow PTSD sufferers time to prepare for exposure, or the choice to avoid the trigger if they aren’t able to deal with it at that time.

Unfortunately, some people do try to use trigger warnings to change entire course syllabuses because they don’t like or agree with the content.

Some other common arguments against using trigger warnings

⋅ You can't allow for everyone's trauma. Of course that's true. But you can help the majority of PTSD sufferers. Extreme violence (war, abuse) and sexual assault are the main causes of PTSD.

⋅ You can't or shouldn't pander to such a small group of people. In America, almost 10% of women and 4% of men will experience PTSD at some stage of their life. That's not a small group.

⋅ Trigger warnings are a manifestation of the nanny state. I like knowing what ingredients are in my food so I can avoid a lot of artificial additives and migraine triggers, what fabrics are in my clothes so I can wash them appropriately, where products are from so I can support local growers and manufacturers.

Labelling with the source, Fair Trade or organic certification, ingredients or washing instructions is generally unobtrusive, and helps you make a choice. Just like providing trigger warnings.

⋅ Trigger warning stickers will ruin book covers and hurt sales. Stickers need not be plastered over the front covers. Amazon uses a single line at the end of the blurb. A warning could be added to print books on the ISBN/Publisher information page, or a line on the back cover. Many romance books already do this with discreet 'heat' ratings.

Those who want to see the warnings will look for them. Just like clothing labels or ingredients lists. Plus there will be always people who will buy because of the warning, like music with explicit lyrics.

⋅ Trigger warnings are censorship. No they aren't. Censorship blocks you from accessing the content. A trigger warning doesn't block or change (sanitise) anything. They are more like the maturity ratings on movies, a guide, nothing more sinister.

⋅ Trigger warnings give away the plot of a book. They don't need to be specific - a character being pushed down stairs can be noted with a "violence" trigger warning. Sure they give away some information, but not the plot.

⋅ Triggers warnings enable victim-behaviour, and are patronising. Actually, they help the PTSD sufferer make decisions to support their recovery process. That's not victim-behaviour, and doesn't tell them they can't look after themselves.

⋅ Art is meant to make you uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and questioning, yes. Re-living trauma with full-blown flashbacks, typically not.

Trigger warnings are a courtesy to be used sensibly

As a tool for PTSD sufferers to better manage their lives, protect their families from outbursts and flashbacks, and recover from their traumatic experience, trigger warnings are very helpful.

On the other hand, PTSD sufferers can be proactive - searching out blurbs and reviews of books and movies to - and can use common sense. Studying English literature, history, art history and perhaps even philosophy is likely to contain triggering content. Either survivors prepare to deal with it, write about it and discuss it, or choose another area to study.

But when such books/topics/films are made compulsory during secondary school, trigger warnings should be provided, as well as alternatives for survivors (speaking from my personal bad experience at high school with prescribed texts and inadequate blurbs).

Should we put trigger warnings on everything? Speaking as a cPTSD sufferer, no.

I would prefer having warnings only on graphic or detailed depictions of the common triggers.

That’s where there are none (yet) on this blog - I haven’t gone into graphic detail about the trauma I survived.

But not using warnings at all says “you are unimportant” to survivors.

What do you think about trigger warnings?

  • Should we use them or not?
  • What things should have trigger warnings?
  • Do you think I should include them on my posts where I mention my childhood of abuse?