What are trigger warnings and do they work?
These are often at the beginning of an article or social media post, either labelled as; trigger warning “TW’, or content warning ‘CW’. Triggers have many different definitions. The discussion regarding their use is not straightforward or easy.
I’m keen to start a discussion about how we perceive them, use them or alternatives that we could implement.
This is a heavily nuanced subject and I do not claim to have all of the answers, in fact my experience and knowledge is finite.
Before I get into my own views, lets discuss the origins of where “trigger warnings” for content originated.
Trigger warnings originate from trauma, PTSD content. They were specifically attached to protect people with a history of PTSD/ trauma from experiencing the negative effects of reliving the traumatic exposure and secondary response. “Being triggered” in any other setting is different to this. People with PTSD often cannot regulate their response to the trigger.
I do not have experience with PTSD and so I’m not equipped to be able to talk about all of the nuances associated with this. I can however talk about the use of “TW” outside of trauma & PTSD and the potential harm they cause.
Multiple studies have demonstrated TW used in any other context at best do not work and at worst can cause harm. Yet almost every post I come across in the eating disorder community comes with a “TW”. It’s almost as if a trigger warning absolves a person from any responsibility of what they are posting.
If you are consuming, participating and engaging with particular content on social media you have a level of personal responsibility.
What do I mean by this?
It is your choice to visit certain pages, hashtags and communities. You have the same choice to avoid or unfollow content that does not help you.
Additionally you have a degree of responsibility regarding content you share. If you feel it may be harmful, caveating it with a TW is not solving a problem. Before I share anything, I consider a few things; does this post have the possibility to harm, does it serve the community I want to be an ally to and how would I have perceived this when I was unwell?
There is also a big difference between being “triggered” and discomfort.
Unlike people with PTSD, most of us with eating disorders whether you like it or not can choose to be triggered by something.
People with PTSD find it difficult to self regulate/soothe when they come across a trigger and reminder of the traumatic event. It can have many physical, somatic effects such as dissociation, soiling, hyperventilation and these are not in their immediate control. Therefore trigger warnings applied to topics/scenes depicting graphic violence/ sexual assault may help. There’s also debate that avoidance of such can do harm to some people’s recovery but again I am not equipped to go into the nuances regarding these.
I know when I was deep in anorexia, I would seek content with “TW’s, my eating disorder wanted me to be triggered. A trigger warning did not deter my unwell brain. If anything they helped keep me stuck in the cycle. I chose to be triggered by them. Why?
Eating disorders by nature a incredibly competitive. When the eating disorder voice is the dominant voice it will go looking for anything that validates it and makes it “more successful”. I could have controlled my response to them, I could have avoided them all together, but I chose not too.
Trigger warnings do not prevent this. They are the problem.
Now I’m solid in recovery, if I see an post with ‘TW” I can view content without allowing myself to become “activated”. I will often choose not to open such posts depending on how I am feeling in myself. I take responsibility in what I engage with. This is self regulation. But let me lay this out there…the “TW’s” on content I used to seek when I was ill with anorexia would reinforce intrusive thoughts. Labelling content with a “TW” would often lead me to engage in things I wouldn’t other wise. It’s like when someone says “don’t think about the colour red” all you can think about is the colour red. TW’s don’t tell you to avoid the content but they may increase the intrusive thoughts too. There’s increasing literature to show that “TW’s” do not work and can result in increased anxiety (I’ll share some links below).
As I have referred to already there is a difference between “being triggered” and feeling uncomfortable (feeling our feelings). I can feel uncomfortable about something but still remain within my parasympathetic nervous system and not enter the fight or flight mode invoked by the sympathetic nervous system. Commonly posts will elicit feelings of grief because I resonate with them to a time when I was unwell. These feelings are healthy and transitory- they do not keep me stuck in a state of “activation or triggered into a trauma state”.
Again I’m not knowledgeable in all of the nuances regarding this. I wanted to start the discussion about how blanketly these warnings are being used and whether they are causing more harm than intended.
I’m not saying there is no role for TW’s, I am encouraging you to reflect on why you use them, is it truly to prepare an individual or to remove responsibility from what you share or engage with?
Do trigger warnings help you are they as useful as we think? Do they cause you more intrusive thoughts? I’d love to hear your opinions, either via the comments or email me.
A few published studies: