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A trigger warning or content note is a short warning, usually at the top of or leading an article, story, or discussion, which aims to reduce trauma related to post traumatic stress disorder or another mental illness that could possibly be activated by reading certain passages or descriptions, or from recalling traumatic events due to these.
Trigger warnings are effectively the same as content warnings, such as MPAA classification boxes on movie trailers/posters or Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings on video game cases, but primarily for written pieces. For some reason a new word had to be invented, which subsequently become uniquely vilified despite being more-or-less near-identical to those of other media. A trigger warning can of course in some cases encourage exposure to the topic.
The term was originally limited to the context of PTSD and/or emotional disorders, but is often misused to describe an adverse reaction to something heard, read, or seen. Saying that someone got triggered by something is often used to belittle opponents' responses as silly emotional freak-outs.
Use of trigger warnings
A trigger warning is usually a one-sentence notice, such as "This article contains graphic photos of injuries" or "This article discusses anorexia and may not be suitable for readers with eating disorders." The warning can be ignored by people who do not care, and offer an opportunity to pause and reflect for people who are sensitive.
When someone who is sensitive to a topic sees a trigger warning, they can make a decision:
- Brace themselves and continue,
- Save it until later when they're ready, or
- Decide it's not worth it and find something else to do
Trigger warnings encourage people to stop and ask themselves questions like "Do I really want to read this article if it's just going to stress me out?" or "Am I sure that I should be watching this violent scary movie right before my bedtime?"
Trigger warnings are not a long-term solution for mental illness. They're a stopgap measure meant to help people who are still early on in the recovery process. Avoidance is not a healthy long-term coping mechanism, and people should seek appropriate therapy for their issues if possible.
Use on websites
Websites may include a quick trigger warning at the beginning of an article with disturbing content.
RationalWiki itself has a few trigger warnings on citations and links to sites with graphic or disturbing content, such as in the articles for Whale.to and ProphecyFilm.com, which is probably not something you want to read about right before bed.
Use of trigger warnings in universities
“”When students are presented with appropriate warnings as professors see fit, they can actively manage their anxiety both before and during the potentially triggering experience. In contradiction to the argument that opponents often present, they allow for more, not less, engagement in the class.
|—Emma Jones, student columnist for Vassar College's newspaper|
A reading list or class discussion may be prefaced by a quick trigger warning. This allows students with mental illnesses or adverse life experiences to prepare themselves, and perhaps speak to the professor if they aren't sure they are mentally well enough to handle it.
Trigger warnings can be a way to show respect for students' boundaries and different life experiences. They may help a mentally ill student feel more comfortable going up to the professor and asking for reasonable accommodations (like a private heads-up or the ability to take quick breaks to calm down) so they can better stay engaged in class.
Trigger warnings can also quietly raise awareness for mental health issues, reminding mentally healthy students that their mentally ill peers may have different emotional needs and still deserve to be included.
However, the difficult nature of triggers poses multiple challenges to a professor. A student having a full-blown panic attack in class is, objectively, not very conducive to learning. But balancing students' emotional needs, without encouraging them to hide from stress, can be a difficult line to walk.
Humanities professors have expressed stress over knowing when to use trigger warnings. There is no way to be certain what will trigger a student. Some students may complain about lack of trigger warnings to administrators, instead of just politely asking the professor for a heads-up. Some professors may feel reluctant to discuss controversial topics at all.
Popular misuse of the term
“”Experiencing PTSD or other serious mental health issues as a result of unknowingly reading something triggering is more than a little uncomfortable or challenging. Making fun of that belittles the very real urgency of rising levels of mental health issues.
Sometimes people can't seem to tell the difference between "I am experiencing severe symptoms of mental illness" and more innocuous things like "I'm insulted" or "You're exposing me to ideas I don't like."
The most entertaining example is the University of Chicago's 2016 welcome letter, claiming that no trigger warnings would be issued on campus because people would be exposed to intellectually and emotionally challenging material... not realizing that their letter was, in effect, a trigger warning.
A few bloggers may use trigger warnings to jokingly insult something they don't like, such as "Trigger warning: contains a picture of Donald Trump" or "Content note: Autism Speaks." While poking fun of bullies can be good humor, they also run the risk of trivializing mental illness.
Thanks to our hyperconnected society, memes proliferate at the speed of light. The idea of triggers and trigger warnings started off as one thing (clinical psychiatric theory for treatment of PTSD) and quickly came to represent a completely different thing (a punchline for online jokes and taunts). In internet culture and especially on social media today, the term "triggered" is a meme used to mock anyone who has a negative emotional reaction to something heard, read, or viewed. Usually the person or group being mocked is considered by the mocker to be variously silly, overreacting, weak minded or easily offended.
Since triggering negative reactions in people is the raison d'être of online trolls, troll culture has wholeheartedly embraced the term, mostly as a measure of how successful their efforts are at getting random strangers upset. As expected, 4chan and Reddit trolls have developed the practice to a fine art. The public triggering of SJW's online has been described as "the fulcrum of alt-right trolls", who believe that all SJWs are overly sensitive to certain thoughts, words, and behaviors.
Making fun of people with serious mental illnesses or trivializing real triggers to the same level as knee-jerk reaction is, obviously, wrong.
Clinical psychiatry background
“”A trigger warning is a simple note in [in this context, a college syllabus] saying, "Hey, we're going to discuss something that may cause some of you to relive a traumatic life experience. Please prepare accordingly." Those last three words are important, because that combat veteran or that rape survivor will likely actually prepare accordingly. It's a pretty complex idea, I know. Some people just can't wrap their head around it. What it doesn't mean—but what most people think it means—is, "We might mention something that will hurt your feelings. Go hide in this special room so the bad words don't hurt your precious, fragile ears.
|—Isaac Cabe, This is What Safe Spaces & Trigger Warnings Actually Are, Cracked|
Multiple mental disorders (including PTSD) can become more activated by what psychological professionals frequently call "triggers". Trigger warnings were initially intended to be used in specially designated safe-spaces (such as feminist blogs) for victims of rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. They offer a heads-up that whatever comes next may be particularly distressing.
People with mental illnesses may have strong reactions to triggering material, and their fight-flight-or-freeze response takes over. Extreme reactions like panic attacks, nausea, dissociation, uncontrollable crying, insomnia, and hyperarousal are examples of potential reactions to a trigger. This is obviously not an ideal situation, especially if the person has to accomplish goals related to work or school.
Note that these triggers may be unique to each individual and experience, deeply tied to specific sensory experiences. What triggers one particular person might appear inoffensive to an observer unfamiliar with their situation. In fact, many people with PTSD tend to respond much more strongly to things few people would associate with mental trauma than seemingly more direct depictions of violence. For instance a soldier who saw his comrades burn to death might have intense reactions to the smell of grilling, but can watch (and actually enjoy) a war movie just fine. This is by no means universal however, so each case should be approached individually. While people can personally ask someone for their triggers (e.g. a professor checking with a student), trigger warnings in an impersonal situation (like an internet article) likely will not catch all triggering material. Furthermore, the reactions to audiovisual stimuli (which trigger warnings usually warn of) is not always as strong as the reaction to smells, tastes or other non-audiovisual stimuli.
There is significant evidence that mention of suicide in the media can provoke suicides, although there is a high degree of variation, with reports of the suicide of real celebrities causing a much greater copycat effect than fictional depictions.
Mental illness triggers are similar to (but not the same as) triggers of physical conditions, such as strobe lights causing a seizure in a person with epilepsy, or a painfully loud noise causing sensory overload in an autistic person.
Much like the trigger warning, safe spaces are meant to provide a degree of shelter from emotional trauma. Safe spaces are public "spaces" for people to feel "safe" in, without needing to fear being judged or subject to offensive persons and material. Safe spaces would include groups like LGBTQ meetings, student unions comprising minority races, rape victim support clubs, and other activities that involve intimate personal knowledge, sharing and understanding, and where any comments formed out of prejudice and/or ignorance are called out. For instance, if someone has been a victim of rape, and they want the comfort of being in an area where they can share their experiences with other sympathetic people who have been through the same thing, it is not exactly unreasonable that they would not want to be subject to someone deliberately stirring up trouble by victim blaming them and insisting that rape culture does not exist (or sealioning to the same effect). Similarly, it's not unreasonable for black students to have areas they can go where they will not have to hear themselves being referred to in blatantly racist terms.
Safe spaces can be useful for people who need a break from a stressful environment and who want to talk with like-minded people. Of course, they are not a substitute for appropriate therapy if someone is mentally ill.
Scientific studies show mixed results about trigger warnings, and more research is needed. While trigger warnings can be useful for short-term coping strategies (like an easily-scared person choosing not to read a scary story before bedtime), they are not a substitute for appropriate therapy.
Benefits of trigger warnings
The APA has found several benefits to proper use of trigger warnings. Warnings may reduce stress in people with PTSD.
Drawbacks to trigger warnings
Triggers may be associated with circumstantial details (like the sound of a garage door opening or the smell of popcorn) rather than the actual cause of trauma, making them extremely difficult to predict.
One study found that trigger warnings slightly increased anxiety in (presumably) mentally healthy people who believed that words could cause harm.
Avoidance is not a healthy long-term strategy. It can even worsen PTSD symptoms, and exposure therapy done by a trained professional in a controlled environment is ideal. While bystanders like professors can't control this, they can check in on the person and gently encourage them to get appropriate help.
Trigger warnings, as they exist now, no longer enjoy the support of (some of) feminism; what began as a tool to be used in safe spaces specifically designed for female PTSD victims has now undergone feminist critique.
In the late 2010s, entire careers were built off a populist negative reaction to a campus culture of trigger warnings and "safe spaces", which was claimed to invite a broader suppression of speech. Right-wingers like Jordan Peterson and left-liberals like columnist Lindsey Shepard have built celebrity careers off of this negative reaction.
One right-wing writer published a book called Trigger Warning with the slogan "Political correctness won't save you." All about owning the libs, the stereotype-fueled power fantasy features a conservative Army white male protagonist who wants to fight back against a hostage-taking school shooter. The book dropped jaws... though probably not the way the writer would have wanted.
Some people claim that trigger warnings on campus infantilize adults. For instance, when Brown scheduled a debate that would likely include criticism of the term "rape culture", a competing talk was held and announced as a "'safe space' [that] would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting." For some, the underlying conviction supporting safe spaces in universities seems to be that they "should keep [students] from being 'bombarded' by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints", particularly viewpoints that originate from, and contribute to, an existing system of oppression against the individuals, and thus are neither new ideas nor original.
A frequent criticism of trigger warnings is that they constitute censorship. Censorship is defined by suppression or prohibition. A few trigger warnings suppress the content, hiding all of the content behind a prompt, splash, or login screen. However, people can usually still access the material if desired.
Conflating ordinary trigger warnings and censorship is a bit of a logical leap, since most trigger warnings are a simple one-sentence notice. There's a huge difference between saying "Hey, this contains upsetting content" and "You're not allowed to access this content at all."
On the other hand, safe spaces do have the potential to foster groupthink if group members that voice dissenting opinions to their group or violate unspoken assumptions of uniformity within the safe space are marginalized as being a source of disturbance.
A few cases of genuine censorship
An Oberlin College task force released a document of potential triggers (such as classism and privilege) and recommended avoiding the material unless it contributed directly to student learning. Faculty members pushed back and the document was retracted.
Trigger, or spoiler?
Trigger warnings are in conflict with another trend of modern society, the spoiler warning. The rise in instant media news which obsessively dissects every aspect of every popular cultural thing means that people are more concerned than ever about spoilers: information about a film's or other artwork's plot which may harm enjoyment.
The problem regarding trigger warnings is that they can sometimes be seen as spoilers, but the hysteria over spoilers is itself a recent product of a changed media culture. Today even serious discussions of literary criticism or film studies feel obliged to display spoiler warnings (e.g. the British Film Institute's very worthy and intellectual magazine Sight And Sound, which publishes complete synopses giving away the ending of every film it reviews, began including spoiler warnings a couple of years ago). This is of course because people are incapable of looking away when an article discusses a plot development and many lose some enjoyment of a work of art when they already know something about the plot. For some reason, the anguish of people unable to avoid spoilers is considered far more socially acceptable than that of mentally ill people complaining of triggers, and publishers seem far more willing to provide spoiler warnings than trigger warnings.
- Guide to Ratings Classification and Rating Administration at the MPAA.
- ESRB Ratings Guide. Entertainment Software Rating Board.
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