What is a trigger warning?
Let’s start with a more basic question. What is a trigger?
Just as a literal trigger activates a gun, a figurative trigger activates your mental disorder. It’s a stimulus that sets off either a manic or depressive phase, or a bout of PTSD.
Triggers are usually unique to the individual. What sets you off may not affect me at all.
Over the years I’ve learned what my triggers are, and so do most bipolar or PTSD sufferers. Loud noises and large crowds trigger my anxiety, which is why I could never work at a Chuck E. Cheese. My depressive phases don’t often have triggers except for bad dreams about an ex-boyfriend. Most of my depressive episodes just happen without a trigger.
Generally, one avoids triggers, because who needs more manic or depressive phases in addition to those that occur naturally, with no prompting?
A trigger warning is something else. It is a notice that someone puts at the beginning of a piece of writing to warn readers that the subject matter may be intense. Ordinarily, trigger warnings are given for major life events that have caused trauma and may cause flashbacks, severe stress or other extreme reactions.
Some of the most common trigger warnings are for graphic depictions of rape, suicide, self harm, or physical or sexual abuse. The trigger warning says to a potential reader: If you don’t want to encounter this material, if you think it will make your illness worse, or cause you undue stress, don’t read any further.
Although we call relatively minor stimuli triggers, they usually do not require trigger warnings. If you’re going to write about having a fight with your mother, you probably don’t need to put a trigger warning on it. If your mother hit you in the face with a frying pan and sent you to the ER, you might need to place a trigger warning on your post about it.
Online, the standard form for trigger warnings is first to state, often in all caps, TRIGGER WARNING and state the type of trigger it is – TRIGGER WARNING: SELF-HARM, TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, etc. To be extra sensitive, the writer leaves a number of blank spaces or a few dots before beginning to write the difficult material. This gives the reader the choice of whether to scroll down and read it or not.
Trigger warnings have become controversial, particularly in schools and colleges. Many pieces of literature and even textbooks on history or sociology discuss difficult topics that may be triggering. For example, a novel might feature a rape as a plot point, or a history text might discuss slavery.
Some people believe that a trigger warning will help a prospective reader know whether reading further will provoke a strong reaction. Other people believe that trigger warnings are a way of coddling the weak and letting students avoid challenging material that is necessary for the class.
My own opinion is that a trigger warning is like chicken soup: It won’t hurt and might help. It may mean that a student asks for an alternative reading or assignment, but it also may mean that the student simply wants to be in a safe space – not surrounded by strangers, for example – before reading the material.
People that believe trigger warnings should not be given have usually not experienced the kind of emotional breakdown that can result from unexpectedly confronting a traumatic topic. Very likely they have never even been in the presence of someone who has had such an extreme reaction.
I suppose that ideally, we could all read any material and simply brush it off if we found it troubling. Unfortunately, for those of us with mental disorders such as bipolar illness, PTSD, and anxiety disorders, this is simply not possible. A trigger warning may prevent someone from having a public meltdown and others from having to witness one.
I don’t know why that should be controversial. It seems like simple courtesy to me.