Trigger Warnings

Have you ever read a book that makes your heart clench? That makes you feel sick to your stomach? That makes you feel like you can’t breathe? Have you ever read a book that takes you back to a dark time in your life and plants a seed in your head that makes you think you won’t feel the same until you relapse?

I have.

For people that haven’t been marginalised because of their disability, sexuality, culture, or haven’t experienced mental illness, it’s easy to assume that we don’t need trigger warnings on what we read. There aren’t trigger warnings in real life, right? But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to your readers, especially when so many of us are capable of being harmed by what we read.

We’re not “sensitive”.

What we read does affect us, and suggesting otherwise is not only condescending, but highlights your own privilege.

I’m not denying the fact that the best books are ones that leave us thinking. Some would even argue that controversial novels are necessary because they spark conversations about the things that we need to be talking about. But trigger warnings aren’t an attempt to take away that aspect of novels. Trigger warnings are needed because they have the capability to warn or protect potentially vulnerable readers. If you care more about protecting the “integrity” of a novel than the people that read it, then you should question your place in the reading community or the industry.

Trigger warnings do not censor what’s been written. They are used to create an alert about content in a novel that could prompt traumatic memories if the person happened to experience something related in the past.

People who need trigger warnings are not weak-willed or just “offended easily”.

I’m not proposing authors should stop writing about the confronting aspects of life. All I ask is that authors and their publishers understand that words are powerful things, and they have the ability to harm as much as help. Trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence.

So yes. I’ve been writing and rewriting this post for weeks now. This is an issue very close to my heart, but sometimes the things that mean the most to you are the hardest to find the right words for. But a couple of days ago, something changed. A well-known YA author said something that got the whole bookish community talking about the need for trigger warnings in novels, which has reignited the conversation about what trigger warnings should look like, and if we even need them at all.

Firstly, let’s define what a “trigger warning” actually is. There is no standard definition, but psychologists broadly define it as a heads-up about content that could be triggering for someone with a history of trauma. Trigger warnings aren’t just something that makes you feel uncomfortable. For people that have experienced the thing being discussed or mentioned or even enacted, it can even trigger the fight or flight response, catapulting them back into the moment when they experienced something similar.

Trigger warnings are nothing new. The practice originated in internet communities, primarily for the benefit of people with post-traumatic stress disorder and was used to flag content that would allow people to choose whether or not to engage with the material. The term “trigger” actually comes from the literature on post-traumatic stress disorder where it refers to a reminder of a traumatic event that one has experienced.

I’ve been triggered by things I’ve read in novels. We can’t pretend that no one needs trigger warnings or that everyone’s making a big deal of it. The impact of triggering content cannot be underestimated, and it can be detrimental to the individual. Even life-threatening.

Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.

But because I’m someone who will not reduce myself to acting like the people that hold an opposing view to me, which would be to shout into the Twittersphere using hurtful language towards those that disagree with me, I’m going to deconstruct some of the statements made calmly. And what’s more, I’m going to use psychology to back me up. Always do your research, kids.

“Triggering things help to stop triggers.”

It has been argued that we shouldn’t give trigger warnings, based off the efficacy of exposure to the object of a phobia, under the guidance of a trained psychotherapist. However, exposing people to triggering material without warning would in fact be counterproductive, much like throwing a spider at an arachnophobe every so often. It wouldn’t help in eradicating that phobia, and it might even make it worse.

I know everyone’s journey is different, but personally, being triggered by things has not stopped me from being triggered. That would be absurd. Perhaps through the correct exposure therapy conducted by a trained professional, I could maybe — maybe — not be triggered by the same content one day. However, content creators including triggering content is not supposed to assist those recovering from trauma, hence it is not helpful in preventing people from being triggered.

“Trigger warnings… act as spoilers.”

Unfortunately, psychologists aren’t very trained in the realm of spoilers, so I will have to make do with my own intellect. So let’s get something out in the open — trigger warnings are not spoilers. If you’re novel or movie or content revolves around a twist that will be “spoiled” by a trigger warning, that is not the kind of content we really need in the world. I honestly don’t see how it could be proposed that trigger warnings will spoil the content. These aren’t “spoilers”. They are warnings placed to advise those recovering from trauma or living with mental illness that there may be some triggering scenes ahead. Trigger warnings are not there to stop people from getting offended or to “spoil” your content.

“SJW [social justice warrior] types are oblivious to how weak they appear; needing trigger warnings and safe spaces. Real life will grant you neither”

Yes, we cannot regulate everything in our environment, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and assist those who are recovering from trauma. In fact, many universities are now encouraging lecturers to use trigger warnings in their material. One professor proposes that trigger warnings are even helpful to those that do not requite them, as they help sensitise these people to the fact that some of their classmates will find the material hard going, which fosters empathy.

And no, people who need trigger warnings are not “weak”. We have been through trauma that others couldn’t even begin to imagine, and requesting that content creators advise their audience if there may be potentially harmful material assists us in taking care of ourselves and understanding the very real threat of being triggered. The people that state that those who need trigger warnings are “weak” would be the same people that suppose those suffering from mental illness are “weak”. Requesting trigger warnings should be the same as requesting to be seen by a doctor about a broken arm. A doctor cannot physically mend your arm — only your body can piece itself back together with some help — the same way a trigger warning may not fully protect us from harmful material — but it assists us. To deny those seeking help or requesting it is to disregard mental health altogether.

So there’s that. The importance of trigger warnings should not be minimised, and we should be pushing for more warnings in the content we consume. If not for ourselves, then for our friends. Just because you might not need a trigger warning on content, that’s not to say that these warnings do not serve a purpose or are not helpful, or even life-saving, for others. Take care of yourselves, and be empathetic towards those around you.

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Sources used:

Why I Use Trigger Warnings

Trigger Warning: You Are Not Triggered

10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings

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32 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings

  1. Great post, Sarah! I completely agree with you. There was a time when I didn’t care about trigger warnings but one book changed it all. You might have an idea which book I am talking about. Recently a series has been made on it too. Don’t get me wrong. It was a brilliant book. It had a really important message. But it was too damn dark and I only came to know about the height of it’s darkness when I read it. Maybe I am weak if that’s what people call it but I still wish I hadn’t read that book. I wasn’t prepared for what I was getting myself into. I just kept thinking if it had that effect on me, then what would be its impact on the people who actually go through the stuff mentioned in the book. So I agree that there must be trigger warnings.

  2. I haven’t read books with trigger warnings before… but you make some great points here, and now that I think about it, it would be nice if some stories would have these at the beginning.

  3. I couldn’t agree more.
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and well-researched points.
    They deliver a strong message. A message I hope will go out there and make a difference.
    Thank you.

  4. This is a really really wonderful post, and I’m so grateful that you’re tackling big subjects like this. Your use of research shows and I appreciate you left us links for further exploration.

    I myself have read only one book that I reacted so strongly to, dealing with anxiety and mental illness. I’m still impressed with how well the author conveyed the difficulties of mental illness through her writing. The unfortunate part of this was, the author had requested that I review the book. I couldn’t write a good review that showcased the skill of her writing because I felt like I could barely interact with the book after reading it. I gave her a really weak review and just tried to move on – something I still feel bad over.

    Still, I’m glad I had that experience, because now I know that I can react to books in that way. If I do gleam something from the book description that might have that same effect, I put it back. Books can affect our mental state so much. They can make us laugh or cry. They can make us so incredibly happy, and we talk about that all the time. We definitely need to talk about how they can affect us in bad ways too. I think trigger warnings, or effect use of tags, etc, would go a long way in helping us to avoid books that could seriously harm us.

  5. “Unfortunately, psychologists aren’t very trained in the realm of spoilers, so I will have to make do with my own intellect.” YAS, GOOD SASS, I LIKE. Honestly though I agreed with the entirety of your post. And those trivializing the importance of trigger warnings, saying they’re spoilers, just don’t read them? They’re obviously intended for an audience that requires them, so if you’re concerned it’ll spoil you just move on? You have the luxury to ignore them, but it could save somebody else’s mental health, so let it be? Trigger warnings aren’t something I require, but I can still see they’re important to some other readers, so why not include them if somebody will deeply benefit? Just my two cents. I support all of your words. ❤

  6. This is such a comprehensive and important post, Sarah. I feel like trigger warnings are important and it’s great that you brought this up because *some* people think trigger warnings are “spoilers”. *rolls eyes all the way to the South Pole*

  7. Maybe you could come up with trigger warnings similar to the icons/words they use to categorise content in movies – same idea, isn’t it? Letting the reader/view know the level of one or more elements that are known to be issues within the community? Then let it get out there, big time, so it becomes as common place as the terms AO; contains Sex scenes, violence, etc. (I can’t remember all the terms, but I always look for them!)

    • I think that’s a really good idea! I’ve also seen it done in one novel by writing what could be triggering under the chapter titles in the index – I think that was really well done. But yes, we need trigger warnings in novels, and we need to figure out what the best way to show these warnings are. Just having them would be a start, though 💕

  8. This is a great post and I agree with everything you said. I don’t even understand why people get upset by trigger warnings. Just because they don’t need the trigger warnings doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t. And I hate the spoiler argument. It’s nonsense.

  9. Great post, Sarah!! The idea that trigger warnings aren’t needed is so insensitive and to suggest that they’re spoilers (or that spoilers are more important that someone relapsing) is so ridiculous. Even if you can’t relate doesn’t mean you can’t be empathetic and understand what someone being triggered could do. I really don’t see why it’d be so hard to include a page at the front of the book that lists major trigger warnings.

  10. Lovely post, Sarah! I think that trigger warnings definitely are essentials and should not be considered as spoilers. It’s important to warn people of potential content that could harm readers! 🙂

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