Trigger Warnings

April 28, 2012 § 9 Comments

A proviso, before I write anything else – this post doesn’t come with any specific goal in mind, or an agenda beyond the broadest ‘let’s keep talking and try to make things better in a general kind of way’ – so, the usual one. With that said – trigger warnings. Shall we?

I’ve come fairly late to the concept of trigger warnings – the areas of the internet I tend to frequent (JSTOR, I’m looking at you) aren’t exactly overflowing with them. But the more I avoid my paperwork the more I read blogs recommended by friends – and the more I’ve noticed them. For the most part used, it seems, as red flags before pieces detailing assault and abuse, particularly of a sexual nature. Increasingly, perhaps (?), to point out instances of bullying and general cruelty – “trigger warning for fatphobia”etc. The condition being triggered usually left unstated – the few bloggers I’ve seen go into detail have discussed PTSD – particularly PTSD brought on by abuse.

So far, so useful – and, loving and having loved a fair few people with PTSD resulting from rape and abuse, it seems eminently sensible to signpost content that could bring on an attack. But, more than that, the words “trigger warning” call to mind something far broader and, also, even more personal. The symptoms of other conditions/states that can also be triggered by something posted by a friend or a stranger, how exceptionally varied those triggers can be, and the question of what we’re meant to do with it all?

The extremely personal – I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder when I broke down at the age of thirteen. It could be an aspect of my bipolar brain – it could be its own special thing. It’s certainly integral to my character – but a monstrous shadow side to the main event. I don’t use the word “monstrous” lightly. Having OCD doesn’t mean checking the front door is locked three times before you go out. It isn’t a funny meme you circulate, or the exclamation “I’m being so OCD!” when you catch yourself being a little anal-retentive. Like a great many people with OCD, the compulsions that manifested to “deal” with the obsessions were to do with cleaning – some of the very worst triggers anything that reminded me of just how very unclean this world is. Without years of CBT, psychotherapy and drugs, these are the symptoms that could be triggered by something as seemingly innocent as a dirty joke:

  • A continuous panic attack lasting up to forty-eight hours.
  • Washing with bleach.
  • Having to stay in the shower for several hours.
  • Not being able to leave the house for several days, due to panic and sickness.
  • Washing until my skin broke up and bled.
  • Retching, sickness and collapse from sheer disgust.
  • Gargling with soapy water.
  • Not allowing anyone to touch me (easily months at a stretch).
  • Getting rid of every item of clothing I was wearing when I was triggered.

I’m not overly fond of writing those down, and I could write plenty more – and not one of them is out of the ordinary for someone suffering from OCD – one of the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses. The reason for writing them down isn’t to try to throw my own special pity party – but to share the gravity of what being triggered means to someone with OCD.


And to share the fact that, though I am now able to control the compulsions (the obsessional nightmares are always with you, though practice has made them easier to corral), there’s probably not one person in my life who hasn’t set off my triggers. And not one social networking site – and most of the people I interact with online. From random tweets about digestive health, to details of people’s erotic practices – I’m glad people are able to share their lives without shame, but it’s not something I could even encounter in passing without the aforementioned years of CBT, psychotherapy and my lovely, lovely drugs.

Again, this isn’t to revel in self-pity – and nor is it to try to make people feel guilty. But it is to make the point that triggers are incredibly diverse – triggers that set off serious and painful symptoms. And that not one of us, no matter how kind, how empathetic, how thoughtful, is likely to get through the day without triggering someone, if we move beyond the smallest circles of those we know/know us the best. Among people I’ve known, and some I’ve loved, these have been the triggers that have set off serious symptoms: any mention of death, any mention of disease, certain (random) words, consensual sexual acts that could suggest nonconsensual acts, positive mentions of something that was personally sad (for example, prochoice writing about abortion), mentions of certain films/directors/writers/artists…if I asked you to add to the list in the comments I’m sure we’d never stop. Not once have I seen a trigger warning relating to any of these. Where’s the cut-off between ‘worth warning’ and ‘not worth warning’? By including some warnings and not others, do we tacitly condone the idea that some forms of anguish are more valid than others? But, if we tried, how could we hope to find a list extensive enough to allow us to warn everyone away from what could hurt them?

I don’t think that trigger warnings as they stand are a bad thing – knowing what being triggered has done to me, what it does to those I love, I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through something similar. But I don’t believe that the discourse surrounding triggers and trigger warnings has been wide enough, has counted enough experiences – or has reached to the roots of the problem: how do we communicate in public spaces that maintain the air of the confessional box? How do we conduct quasi-private conversations when we can be heard by so many, and cause accidental pain to those listening? Ultimately, how do we explore our myriad problems, adventures and joys in a way that continues to challenge, while providing a way out for those who need it?

Personally, I’m not close to knowing. But I think every issue could stand to have a multiplicity of voices raised in discussion, so here’s mine.

§ 9 Responses to Trigger Warnings

  • MxsQueen says:

    Agree lots. Post trigger warnings about things involving graphic violent/abusive descriptions generally because I understand they’re things a wide portion of the population have a hard time digesting (and with the knowledge that a smaller section of the above can be actually harmed by). And then at the same time I’m off other times saying “smash X/Y/Z” or fantasising openly about meting returning violence to oppressive bodies. It’s horribly inconsistent, partly because I don’t think there is a clear line. I had mental health issues for a while which lead to weird triggers to severely unhealthy behaviours and feeling really uncomfortable at the time with what felt like special pleading for “obvious” triggers (where I’d also experienced a huge amount of assault to the point that a lot of violent things didn’t bother me so much as just make me feel sad, but seeing particular items of clothing like my attackers could set me off in a panic).

    I still don’t really have a solid place I stand on the whole thing. I’m following convention when I remember to rather than following any clear instinct on what’s appropriate or not.

  • I personally try to trigger warn for things that I know my readers would be triggered by – so for example I’ll try to remember your specific triggers when doing trigger warnings, as I do those of as many people as I can remember that follow my blogs

    • cnlester says:

      Thank you. But then, what to do when talking to a wider audience? Or when your words get repeated by someone else? And even with our friends, we often have to know someone very well indeed to know exactly what will trigger symptoms.

  • Classism observation: I’ve often had my comments edited and trigger warnings pointedly *added* — which I have always perceived (rightly or wrongly) as informing me I am crass or insensitive. Its happened quite a few times.

    I started adding the trigger warnings to my comments.. not when *I* think they are necessary (have no idea when they are, frankly) but when I know I will be edited if I don’t. I still don’t understand, as you have eloquently illustrated, why some stuff gets the sacred nod as TRIGGER and other stuff does not. I have long been annoyed by this, so thanks for a thoughtful analysis.

  • Morgan says:

    Aside from the extensiveness of list issue some triggers seem like they’d be impossible to warn for perfectly anyway – you mentioned someone being triggered by any mention of death: how can you warn that something contains mentions of death without mentioning death? it would seem it’s only possible by giving a vaguer warning, but vagueness makes it easier for people to misunderstand, and given the vast variety of triggers, if trigger warnings aren’t clear and specific enough for people to tell easily whether it’s something likely to affect them specifically, it seems like some people might end up not feeling they were safe to read anything much

    • cnlester says:

      It’s a problem. It’s the problem that makes me very uncomfortable with the way that some people accuse others of being triggering in a ‘holier than thou’ kind of way, without realising that they too trigger others. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a perfect solution – and, obviously, we all have to try to understand our own boundaries and needs. Not easy.

  • Charley says:

    Like Matt I tend to TW for stuff I know people likely to read what I say could have an issue with sexual abuse, etc tend to get an automatic one because it’s so common. Being uncommon (I would prefer trigger warnings when writing to linking to things with images of spiders due to a rather extreme level of phobia but it doesn’t occur to people that arachnophobia can be more than simply being scared of them) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have one it just means you may have to disclose in order to get one in future which is annoying.

    • cnlester says:

      Again, I think this raises an uncomfortable question – when you’re approaching a general audience, what can you adequately do not to hurt others? Where does the burden of responsibility lie?

  • tomwein1 says:

    I think one way of approaching this is to provide an ‘argument’ sentence at the start, which summarizes the things you say, regardless of whether you think they are sensitive. (Bonus points: this is in a long tradition of English literature [see Paradise Lost], and may result in better argued blog posts).

    It seems unfairly restrictive to flag up (or avoid) every violent metaphor because mentions of violence may be triggering; I feel awful for anyone who is that sensitive to passing allusions, but I am not sure it is plausible to save them from it without neutering our language.

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