Why I don’t use Trigger Warnings

I sometimes talk about various kinds of abuse on this blog, but you will never see me mark anything with a ‘trigger warning’ — here’s why:

Triggers are not predictable.

It is pretty much impossible for a person to predict when something will trigger them.  It is then even more impossible for someone to predict what will trigger someone else.  Attempting to predict what will trigger someone, to me, seems to belittle what being triggered actually means.  A flashback, whether emotional or sensory, happens because a traumatic memory is improperly stored and then accessed because of a similar sensory experience in the present.  When the improperly stored traumatic memory is accessed, it is not just remembered as a typical memory.  The traumatic memory is instead re-lived.  Re-experiencing a past traumatic event without warning is extremely jarring and disturbing.  Remembering a past traumatic event when you have been seeking out information on abuse can be very upsetting, but they are two very different experiences.

If being triggered was as simple reading the word ‘abuse’ and remembering being abused, it would be much easier to deal with.  Instead, being triggered means having a small random experience, such as watching a certain quality of light hit the wall, a particular musty smell, or an emotion, and suddenly re-living past trauma.  Flashbacks of this kind are not linguistically connected to their triggers.  It’s impossible to warn someone of when they might be triggered, and I worry that it can sound patronizing to try; as though people are able to and should control their flashbacks and should avoid experiencing flashbacks, as though they are something to be ashamed of.

Trigger warnings aren’t really trigger warnings, they’re content warnings.

Because there is no way to actually predict what can be a trigger for a traumatized person, trigger warnings do not actually provide information about triggers.  They provide information about content.  Just because something contains detailed descriptions of abusive behavior or actions, does not mean it contains triggers for an abused person.  Trigger warnings can make vulnerable people warry of reading things that may be helpful to them.

In my personal experience, I have never had a flashback truly be triggered by reading about trauma or abuse.  Going into a forum, blog, article, or book on the subject, I know what I may encounter.  I find myself remembering uncomfortable things but not reliving them.  There is an important distinction: after remembering an event, if it is properly stored in long-term narrative memory, it is describeable.  Re-experiencing a traumatic event that has not been converted to a narrative memory is very hard to verbalize.*

Content warnings have their place, as some of us like to stay away from particularly graphic descriptions or discussions, but I believe it is important to see upsetting content as very distinct from triggers.

Writers can’t control their reader’s reactions, and it’s weird to try.

While we describe triggers as an outside event causing a flashback, the reality is that the trigger is entirely internal.  The outside event may mimic a sensory or emotional experience of our trauma, but it is our internal reaction to this present event as a part of our past trauma that leads us to be triggered.  The outside world cannot control when traumatized people are triggered.  Even traumatized people may not be able to control when they are triggered, but with patience a traumatized person can come to understand and recognize their flashbacks and reduce their frequency and strength.

Trigger warnings make the writer responsible for the readers’ feelings and reactions.  As a child of a Narcissist, I am warry of any attitude that makes one person responsible for another’s feelings.  We are all responsible for our own actions, reactions, and emotions.  That is not to say people experience triggers and flashbacks on purpose or that it is their “fault” their memories aren’t stored properly, but that we are in charge of understanding our own reactions to our flashbacks.  I’ll write more about this in a different post, but I believe flasbacks can be a gift in disguise.  Flashbacks let us know something bad happened in the past and that it is still effecting us in the present.  Exploring our flashbacks and triggers can be scary, but invaluable.

I can respect that trigger warnings are generally a well-intentioned gesture, and in some contexts, work well as content warning.  I do my best to make it obvious when a post contains such material, and I think it should be apparent that anything in the “Trauma” category of my blog deals with things that are traumatic.  It’s no one’s fault that triggers do what they do, but it’s also impossible to preempt them and can be problematic to try.  I wouldn’t want this to sound like a rant, so I’ll keep it brief and end it here.

the end by leslie knope

Parks and Recreation: Season 4, Episode 6. “End of the World.”

*In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows suppressed activity in Broca’s area when traumatized subjects were asked to recount traumatic events.  In layman’s terms, blood flow in the brain tells us that part of our language center does not function properly when trying to describe our past abuse.  I’ll write more about this in posts about repressed memories and traumatic flashbacks.  

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2 thoughts on “Why I don’t use Trigger Warnings

  1. Finally getting around to reading all your updates. I like this one a lot! And I agree completely. I think trigger warnings on the internet are doing a kind of ironic job of minimizing and dismissing what it means to be triggered in the real world. Sure, a person can be triggered into a traumatic flashback by thinking too hard about a certain topic, but the topics in-and-of themselves are not responsible. Labeling potentially upsetting content with trigger warnings only serves to a) scare readers, and, more importantly, b) cause those who don’t understand what it means to be triggered to become totally dismissive of the concept in general. Trivializing post-traumatic flashbacks serves no one. And while content warnings can be justified, calling them trigger warnings and throwing around the word trigger in contexts that don’t really call for it just make things harder for those who actually suffer from traumatic disorders. I know SO many people who think “being triggered” is bullshit because they’ve read one too many bullshit trigger warning. Flashbacks are real, trigger warnings are silly.

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    1. Finally getting around to responding to comments :) Really happy you like this post! I wanted to keep it short and sweet, but address exactly what you mentioned. It’s so frustrating that something that likely started as a well-intended gesture has backfired so spectacularly: instead of bringing awareness to traumatic triggers, trigger warnings have only manged to confuse and belittle the real meaning of “being triggered”. I’m certainly going to post more about flashbacks and triggers, and keep returning to why the current use of “trigger warnings” on the internet is not entirely helpful when trying to get PTSD symptoms taken seriously.

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