One Survivors Perspective on Trigger Warnings

We all hear a lot about Trigger Warnings, love them or loathe them everybody’s got a view and I’m no exception so here is my take on them.

As you may or may not know I’ve got complicated PTSD. I’ve experienced quite a few traumatic experiences in my life (which will get some passing mentions in this), from being severely burned to being trapped in an extremely violent relationship where over 5 years rape, sexual assault and attempts to kill eventually became almost everyday experiences. When I talk about being triggered I’m normally talking about flashbacks. These situations lead to me physically, mentally and emotionally re-experiencing traumatic events the way I did when it occurred. I’m not sure if any of you have been burned neck to ankle but I can assure you it is excruciating. It’s the kind of pain that you hope you’ll only ever experience once in a lifetime, not every time you watch an action movie with a lot of fire effects in it (pro tip: that’s nearly every one). Sometimes I also use the word triggered to describe the non-flashback effects that happen when I disassociate from the traumatic memory; behaviorally I might completely shut down for 30 seconds to an hour, unable to speak or think, or I might be hit with a sudden wave of mortal terror or righteous anger as my fight or flight responses kick in. In short, getting triggered sucks for me and for those around me.

Now reading all this you’d be forgiven for thinking that I must be a huge advocate for all the trigger warnings on everything, but you’d be wrong. I think Trigger Warnings should have a place in the world, but I feel that many well-meaning people often don’t know how to use them appropriately. I’m going to use the rest of this post outline what I think the purpose of trigger warnings is, some of the problems with not using them this way and to talk about good practice.

What do I think a Trigger Warning should be used for?

  • To let people know that the text/images/video/audio that follows contains graphic descriptions of a traumatic event (such as rape).

What can’t Trigger Warnings do?

  • Ensure someone is never triggered – it’s not just graphic descriptions that are triggering; harmless turns of phrase, tones of voice, smells, music or any other sensory input that our minds link to the event can trigger someone with PTSD. I’ve been triggered by the sound of sirens, the interior of ambulances, broken glass, the smell of a petrol station, someone leaning over me, reading a sentence about loneliness in a book, a cooking blog talking about a recipe I was following when interrupted by a assault… the list is endless. Which ties into…
  • Ensure that no-one with PTSD ever reacts negatively to something you’ve posted because it’s triggered them. As I mentioned before, sometimes we re-experience, sometimes we panic, sometimes we shut off and sometimes we get angry when we’ve been triggered. I know I’ve sent an angry tweet or two in the past to some poor people because they linked to story that had material that I found triggering (which wasn’t a graphic description). You can’t stop people being hurt or upset by their experiences, but you can try to remember that the anger – whilst projected at you – is actually about the horrendous experience they had in the past.

What doesn’t need a Trigger Warning?

  • Putting a TW on anything with specific words in it – I’ve seen articles that say [TW:Rape] at the top and then after having read the whole article discovered that the author once factually mentions rape; i.e. “….prisoners are more likely to experience rape, physical assault, psychological abuse etc.. than the rest of the population.” Let’s be frank, if someone is getting triggered by one instance of the word rape away from any description or discussion of the experience then that initial [TW:Rape] at the start has done it already. What that Trigger Warning has done though is put people off reading an article because it is being described as containing triggering material that most of us would assume involved some level of description of a rape. I think that many people without PTSD forget that people who have experienced trauma frequently develop an interest in the subject that effected them. I know that I’m not alone in having really gotten into feminism and feminist activism, in part, as a way of understanding my experiences and working to ensure that others don’t have to go through the same. I want to fight the kyriarchal culture that allows domestic violence to flourish without question. I also want to be able to avoid reading graphic descriptions of domestic violence because I would like to minimize the amount of times I’m triggered whilst I fight the good fight.
  • Links to basic information like statistics, websites like Women’s Aid & Refuge (I kid you not, I’ve seen it), factual reports, an interview with a MP who is launching a new helpline for those living with abuse, campaigns for improved services and so on and so forth.
  • Things that have been properly titled! In this age of click bait and attention grabbing headlines you never quite know what any given article will actually contain “You’ll never guess what he did next!” could mean one of thousands of things. But there are some which still outline the actual content of the post and act as a trigger warning in themselves. If I read “I’m finally ready to share the details of my rape” I know that what’s coming will quite possibly be triggering.

What should a trigger warning look like?

  • It should be clear – Vauge Warnings are the worst. If I see a link to an article called “My life in the meadow” with the phrase [contains triggers] or simply [TW/Trigger Warning] then it means absolute nothing to anyone. All it says is that the person linking to it thinks something in it could be triggering, which given the widespread misuse of trigger warnings could simply be a reference to a baseball game.
  • It should be simple – If it contains graphic accounts of rape then [trigger warning: rape] or [describes rape] should suffice. There is no need to go to potentially trigger inducing levels of description about the contents. I understand that in an age when [trigger warning: rape] can mean anything from “mentions the word once in passing” to “video of a person being raped” people desire to provide clarification but if you go too far you completely invalidate your attempts to minimise people’s unconsenting exposure to triggering material.
  • It should be available before the potentially triggering text/image/audio etc… It’s of no use afterwards.

So that’s what I think. If you’d like to read another excellent take on the area which looks at some areas I haven’t then I recommend this post from Diary of a Goldfish called “Whats Wrong – and Right – about Trigger Warnings

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