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The Importance of Trigger Warnings

Opinion | October 26, 2015

In the midst of an uproar about the destruction of conversation and the limitedness of being politically correct, I support trigger warnings. Because of general miseducation about mental illness, trigger warnings have become equated to excuses in the eyes of the entitled. Opponents argue that these warnings prevent learning by letting people leave a situation and thus destroy dialogue about a topic.

In reality, trigger warnings promote education by giving survivors a voice and by demonstrating the emotional reality of trauma. Opponents of trigger warnings also assert that trigger warnings coddle people who need to grow, and that survivors should be exposed to reality. Not only is this clinically false, but it is a claim made by those who are privileged enough to have not undergone trauma and have no experience on the subject. Survivors have lost control in their lives, and trigger warnings are one tool that may help them cope with the horrors they have experienced.

The words “trigger warning” have drifted away from their meaning and now make up a mysterious, almost taboo phrase. But a trigger warning is just what it sounds like: a warning of something that may trigger a flashback or physiological symptoms stemming from past trauma—often sexual assault, abuse, or other violence. Trigger warnings exist for people in all stages of the healing process, as every individual recovers at their own pace. Trigger warnings, in their most basic purpose, allow time for a person to bring coping skills to the forefront of their mind and have them ready for use. Coping skills are methods a person uses to manage feelings of extreme distress, and range from breathing exercises to grounding techniques to removing oneself from a situation. In concrete terms, a trigger warning is merely a sentence or so at the beginning of an article, video, or other media. In an academic setting, they can appear as written or verbal warnings when going over the syllabus for a class.

The fact that there is such a misunderstanding of trigger warnings is a good part of why they receive such negative responses. Because of the ignorance around trauma and mental health, people now view trigger warnings as something they are not intended to be. They are seen as enabling someone who is overly emotional or lazy, instead of helping someone with a serious illness. Mental illnesses like Panic Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are viewed as exaggerated forms of sadness or stress. But there is no comparison between feeling upset—or even having extreme sympathy—about a horrible experience, and having the life-changing symptoms of PTSD. In the same way that just being sad about something doesn’t make it traumatic, being angry about—or even hurt by—politics or religion is a far cry from experiencing a panic attack. Trigger warnings are not an excuse for people to refuse to talk about things they do not want to talk about because they are difficult, controversial, or even just go against their beliefs. Trigger warnings are mechanisms for survivors to use to keep themselves safe. If a survivor needs to remove themself from a situation, it is because their well-being is at stake.

People who oppose trigger warnings argue that they prevent learning and discussion about crucial topics. But whose learning are they concerned about? If it is the survivor’s, then leaving a class is hardly skipping out on learning—the individual may have lived through the experience being discussed. People who have not experienced trauma need to learn about the reality of its emotional side by hearing firsthand accounts or watching graphic portrayals. Trauma victims do not. If the concern is for the public’s education, this attitude is still misguided. Opponents argue that trigger warnings take the most valuable voices out of the conversation by letting survivors skip out on discussions. College is a time to grow intellectually and emotionally, and trigger warnings supposedly are destroying this environment by being “intellectually lazy.” But in reality, trigger warnings actually allow some trauma victims to participate in the conversation because they have had time to prepare for it. Conversation is not going to be constructive when a trauma survivor is experiencing panic. Their voice can only be heard when their body and mind are ready. The idea behind trigger warnings is not to censor topics or hide subjects that are difficult to process, but the exact opposite. Warnings actually support having more discussion about topics that can be dark and uncomfortable by helping limit the re-traumatization of survivors and giving them a chance to speak.

Not only do trigger warnings facilitate learning in an academic way by possibly creating a safer space for the survivor, but also their presence opens up a whole other discussion on mental health and the emotional side of trauma. It lets others know that these experiences are real to people, and not just something they will hear about in theory. Emotional topics are often taught in clinical terms, or as subjects that only exist in the lives of people unlike oneself. Seeing a trigger warning signifies that this is untrue and that there could very well be people affected by the topic in the same room. This discussion is just as important, or more so, than academic learning about this subject. Theoretical, removed learning gives facts when the only way of really understanding how to help people in these situations, or even just address this topic, is to know the reality of it.

Even more essential than the idea that trigger warnings actually facilitate learning is the fact that people who’ve experienced traumatic things do not have a duty to teach others at their own expense. Despite the necessity of educating the general public, there is no situation that warrants putting learning before the well being of a survivor. Any teaching a survivor does needs to be on their own terms, and it is the duty of everyone else to make a space where this is possible. Survivors are not here for the benefit of the privileged, and though the ignorance of the privileged might be the price we pay, it is a small one in comparison to a trauma victim’s pain at having to expose themselves again.

Another argument of those who oppose trigger warnings is that they coddle young people who need to develop and grow. How does one equate helping someone who has experienced horrific events with pampering a spoiled child? These opponents are insinuating that it is the job of schools—or the world in general—to decide what is best for trauma victims who have experienced something that most people could not even imagine. By arguing that trigger warnings coddle, people are suggesting that by exposing a survivor to stimuli that bring up emotions of their past trauma, the survivor will eventually get used it and move on. But this twisted suggestion is not how exposure therapy works. Exposure therapy is a specifically tailored process that can only be facilitated by a therapist, and is not even beneficial to some survivors.

More importantly, it is not at all up to strangers to decide what is healthy—it is for mental health professionals and for the individual. The audacity of implying that a person of power and privilege gets to determine how a survivor recovers is outrageous. The job of people in power is to support what a survivor decides, and trigger warnings are a way of letting the survivor control the situation. There is a great hypocrisy in using the argument that trigger warnings are overly considerate in that they coddle a survivor while also arguing that being exposed to trauma-inducing stimuli is a therapeutic approach.

Those that oppose trigger warnings for any reason are asserting a privilege that not everyone has. Only survivors have the right to say what is helpful for them. They have enough of a burden without the unjust pressures of sharing their experience, being forced into re-traumatization, or having people pretend to help them with claims of what is best. Furthermore, trigger warnings are such a small way of helping survivors that it is appalling that they are an issue. Where is the focus on sexual assault education, reduction of stigma surrounding abuse or domestic violence, and funding of resources like crisis centers?

In the end, we have flashing light trigger warnings for people with epilepsy, and yet we might not have them for trauma survivors.

In the end, I need trigger warnings.