Trigger warnings have been the subject of controversy for a few years now, especially as they become increasingly widespread. Some claim warnings are a courtesy, while others hold that they're a form of coddling at best and censorship at worst. Wherever you fall on that particular spectrum, though, there's no denying that trigger warnings do have a place in some situations — the question is, where? It can be difficult to figure out when to use a trigger warning, especially as a layperson. Debates regarding their appropriateness often present the subject as an absolute: Either you use trigger warnings for everything, or you don't, and there's little discussion of an in-between.
The concept of triggers originated in clinical psychology; avoidance of situations that may "trigger" painful memories is one of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although psychologists have explored the idea of flashbacks since World War I. Unfortunately, triggers themselves are notoriously specific to the circumstances of a traumatic experience — emotional responses can be evoked by anything from the typical example of fireworks mimicking the sound of gunshots to more elusive things like the smell of an abusive ex-partner's cologne.
Of course, therein lies the problem: How do you warn for triggers when they mean so many different things to different people? Furthermore, how are survivors supposed to move beyond trauma when they avoid its mention at all costs? Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy and slow desensitization are the most effective treatments for PTSD — but the operative word here is "slow." Survivors eventually heal from trauma, but the process takes time. That's where trigger warnings come in, so they can avoid potential setbacks until they're capable of handling them.
With that in mind, let's look at five times when trigger warnings could be useful.
1. Social Media
To put it simply, you would warn your friends before posting a graphic picture of the time you sliced your thumb making dinner, and the same principle applies to in-depth discussions of trauma or mental illness. Chances are, your friends scroll through Facebook expecting baby pictures and engagement announcements rather than discussions of potentially triggering or disturbing content. It takes two seconds to warn them at the top of a post; just taking a moment to do so then enables them to decide for themselves whether to read on or keep scrolling.
2. TV Shows
Although both TV shows and movies have rating systems to warn viewers of what they're getting into, people simply pay more attention to the movie rating system. Furthermore, TV series can span years, and their longevity can bring about drastic tonal shifts. Series that start out happy-go-lucky can end up delving into difficult topics without much warning — and while that can be creatively rewarding, it's not always great for the audience who isn't expecting a molestation storyline in their Monday night soap opera. Fortunately, most TV shows warn viewers of disturbing content.
However, this is important on a personal level as well. If you know you have a friend who's experienced trauma, it's a good idea to warn them if you're recommending a TV show that might trigger them — not necessarily so they can avoid it, but so they can at least prepare themselves.
The online popularization of trigger warnings, although they didn't go by the name at the time, began in the feminist blogosphere, when writers began warning readers of disturbing content. Today, websites like xoJane and the Huffington Post have adopted some form of warning readers, and it certainly doesn't hurt to do so yourself if you run a blog.
As professor Kate Mann wrote for the New York Times, trigger warnings can be the difference between an unprepared student having a panic attack and a prepared one taking the steps necessary to be able to interact with the material. "The point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings... Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions," she writes.
After all, education is about improving students' minds, and that's hard to do when they're focused on simply surviving panic attacks brought about by unexpected triggers. All it takes is a few seconds to warn people of disturbing content, but those few seconds could spare someone a world of hurt.