Trigger Warnings

By Mandy Li | Scribe

What was once a term coined to warn online users about triggering content has now been tarnished, as trigger warnings expanded beyond trauma.

Trigger warnings are statements found in the beginning of the content that alerts the viewer that what they’re about to see contains potentially disturbing material. They essentially serve as a protective barrier for those with a history of trauma, giving them a chance to step away before it’s too late. Trigger warnings first originated from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The term refers to someone who might get reminded of their trauma, “triggering” them and causing anxiety or intrusive thoughts. When a person has a history of trauma, it means that they experienced something that they can’t forget, oftentimes being a negative, horrifying event.

In recent years, researchers have begun to question the value of trigger warnings. Victoria Bridgland, who has her Ph.D in cognitive psychology, looked at people’s responses to trigger warnings and how they interpret them.

“We found that they don’t really seem to change people’s reactions very much, which is a sort of trend throughout my research,” Bridgland said. 

“Overall is that they don’t seem to be very effective in either achieving their goals but they also don’t seem to be harming people,” Bridgland added.

Trigger warnings were big in the 90s, specifically in online feminist spaces like the magazine Ms. Users on these online spaces would talk about their personal experiences including sensitive topics like sexual assault and eating disorders. They eventually started giving people a heads-up on posts that contained such topics.

The heavy usage and evolution of trigger warnings

Trigger warnings have expanded and since developed, and people should not confuse them with content warnings you see in movies and shows. Content warnings are an age-related restriction, while trigger warnings are a warning before posts and articles. An example would be “Trigger warning: self-harm.”

With more triggers popping up over the years, it’s important to know the difference in emotion that comes with them. Newer triggers are often associated with emotions like sadness, depression, social anxiety, among many more.

In an article in Psychlopaedia, University of Melbourne psychology Prof. Nick Halsam writes that, “these diverse emotions can be rolled up with fear into an undifferentiated ball of ‘upset’, ‘distress’ or ‘feeling confronted’, but crucial distinctions are overlooked in the process.”

It’s critical to spot the difference between serious triggers and things that people may just take offence to, said trauma researcher Victoria Bridgland. The idea of being “triggered” is usually an involuntary reaction where the memories come back all at once. 

The clinical side of trigger warnings was focused on disorders and past experiences. Using warnings on something that involves “triggering language” or annoyance cannot be automatically seen as traumatic fear. “It’s more just like something that could be offensive or make you distressed because it’s an unpleasant topic,” Bridgland said. 

That being said, trigger warnings have become a “meme.” It’s used all the time, which makes it hard to distinguish what you should or shouldn’t avoid. Yet, some say that using them has really helped them.

Are trigger warnings effective?

Regardless of the level of expansion, there are multiple reasons why they are deemed as helpful. People may think that warnings will help those with traumas avoid content that will remind them of unpleasant memories.

However, according to some experts, actively avoiding triggers will only harm them in the long run, as a person with PTSD goes to therapy to confront their triggers, not avoid them. “I have strong confidence that facing one’s fear is the appropriate course of action,” Jones said. 

“The only way out is through.”

Experts in trauma are well aware of this, and there have been multiple studies done on trigger warnings. Some studies show the warnings make the content even more attractive. Although the main aspect of trigger warnings is avoidance, there are limits to what they can and cannot do. There have been discussions over needing a warning that’s more effective, but it’s important to note that people just need to be mindful of the content they are consuming. 

“Why would you rely on other people to make that choice for you or protect you when we don’t rely on that in other situations?” Bridgland said. 

Trigger warnings have become a necessity to some. “It’s one of those things that you’re damned if you do it, you’re damned if you don’t,” Bridgland said.

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