Trigger Warnings Are Valuable… Here’s Why

I get it, for those of you that think that trigger warnings, or content warnings, are yet another manifestation of overly sensitive liberalism. On the surface, trigger warnings can appear grossly superfluous– grow up! If you’re offended by discussions of violence, inequality, or anxiety, then you can’t function in the “real world.” And I attribute that, at least partially, to the overuse of trigger warnings when they may not be warranted. Here’s an example I saw the other day that I have to concur seemed over-the-top and self-indulgent: in an article about stress and schoolwork for college students, there was a content warning at the top that stated simply, “stress, anxiousness.” Come on, people. When we use trigger and content warnings that are that banal, we lose sight of the times when they are very much valuable.

Here’s an easy analogy. Would you ever bring an alcoholic to a bar, flaunt alcohol in their face and say, “Grow up! Be in the real world”? No, or at least I hope not. There would be a recognition that alcohol is “triggering” to an alcoholic– that is, it has the potential to cause very harmful behaviors, and that alcoholic might experience intense stress and even a lack of control around that alcohol. Okay, now let’s take depression, or panic disorder (those are trigger warnings that I often see). For a person with these or other mental disorders, a detailed description of someone’s experience, such as in an editorial piece in the paper, can be triggering– for a depressed person, it can cause a dark, suicidal spiral and a worsening of the disorder. Or, for a person who has a history of panic attacks, it might invoke the panicked feelings once again. With a trigger warning, a person with mental illness (past or present) can at least make the judgment for themselves of, “Do I want to be reminded of my own mental suffering today when I am just trying to relax on the Internet?” Maybe not. But, importantly, many will choose to read on. A trigger warning is not a barrier– it is just an alert.

A similar argument can be made for trigger warnings that are often given regarding homophobia, sexual violence, or racism. What is evident for many but might be difficult to grasp for straight people (me), white people (me), or people who’ve experienced minimal to know sexual violence (also me), is that these topics can be similarly triggering. Panic attacks are terrifying, and talking about them triggering– most folks can grasp that. But talking about homophobia/queerphobia, for example, can be just as terrifying, because homophobia (and other experiences) also carry violence, pain, and serious emotional distress.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about trigger warnings, and do struggle with the idea that there really is no such thing as a trigger warning that’s been institutionalized outside of liberal academic colleges and think tanks. So are we just spoiling ourselves with our handy warnings in a way that actually sets us up for harm in the long run? I don’t think so, but the question deserves asking. I struggle with my ambivalence because there have been two separate occasions when a lack of a trigger warning set me up for a difficult time. Usually, this happens with eating disorders, or used to happen. A professor would begin sharing her own experience, or show a video of an anorexic, without warning, and I would have a panic attack and have to run from the classroom. I wish I was exaggerating, truly. But for me, watching or hearing about a person with anorexia immediately takes me back to the worst place I’ve ever been– I immediately feel self-loathing, repulsive, and suicidal. Just from hearing about it. And I won’t lie, watching movies or videos about eating disorders will often trigger the worsening of disordered behaviors for me (and I know that’s the case for other people as well.) Whenever there is a trigger warning available, I’ll often remove myself from the situation if I know I’m in a bad place emotionally to spare myself the emotional despair.

Furthermore, most people don’t require trigger warnings most of the time. Most of the time, I can read a story about rape and feel disturbed, but not shattered. Sometimes, a rape story will keep me up at night for weeks. What I desire is the ability, conveyed in something so simple as a trigger warning, to decide before reading an article or watching a film whether or not I can manage. When I see trigger warnings that seem superfluous, I remind myself that they don’t serve most of the people who will read it– but they will almost inevitably help a couple people choose to make a decision to spare their own mental health. I can watch a film about addiction, but I would be so kind as to spare a heroin addict from viewing by providing a one-worded warning, just in case they feel that it might delay their recovery. At the end of the day, it’s a small ask.

But what about trigger warnings on your website, Anna? You’ll note that I don’t use warnings, and that’s because the entire site is dedicated to mental health, illness, eating disorders, etc. and I provide a sort of warning by disclosing the focus in the About page and in my bio. There’s really no need when a reader will expect what they’re getting in to. However, if I were to share one of my posts about bulimia with an outside source, I’d be sure to write “trigger warning: bulimia” just in case an unsuspecting reader felt that they did not want their purging to be triggered that day.

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