Trigger Warning

Thanks to our guest blogger Natalie Ziemba for this entry.

Many people process through trauma by letting it out, often through writing, art, or some other creative medium. Many people also experience re-traumatization when reading something that reminds them of their own experience. To help reduce harm, people began sharing content warnings with their blogs, videos, etc. to state, up-front, what material might potentially cause re-traumatization in someone with past experience related to that content. Content warnings, also known as trigger warnings, serve an important purpose in bringing attention to trauma and the ongoing impact it may have.

The term “trigger warning” refers to something that may trigger a flashback. Common triggers may include the location where someone was assaulted, seeing your rapist, or anniversaries related to the date and time of the assault. Triggers may also include things like a specific smell, a particular T-shirt, or the song that was playing at the time of the assault. When reading an article or watching a video, descriptions or scenes similar to what a survivor experienced may also cause flashbacks. In addition to flashbacks, survivors may also experience fear, panic, distress, dissociation, or other overwhelming emotions. Understandably, assault survivors may want to avoid these triggers because a having a flashback of a traumatic event causes the same brain-body response as the initial trauma.

The idea of a content warning started, of course, with the internet. Bloggers began posting “content warnings” at the top of posts that contained graphic descriptions of personal experiences or struggles that they were processing through, and which might cause re-traumatization in others with similar experiences. Content warnings may be a straightforward reference to the general topic, such as “eating disorders,” “gun violence,” or “self-harm.” They may also be more elaborate, like the content warning used in this Harvard study: “Trigger warning: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma.” In general, a content warning gives the reader a heads up about what is to come so that the reader can make an informed decision about continuing with the article.

Many survivors are aware of their triggers, and some even have plans in place for what to do if they unexpectedly encounter a trigger. Trusted friends or family may be part of that plan and know to use thoughtful language when talking about certain triggers with a survivor. Although it would be nice to know exactly what to do to ensure a trigger is never encountered, that is unfortunately impossible. Life always involves the risk of distressing situations. Moreover, not all triggers are known, even to the survivor. Week or months after a survivor starts healing from an assault, they may find themselves in the throes of a flashback because a new episode of their favorite TV show had a couch that looked exactly like the one where they were assaulted.

Content warnings are less about avoiding something unpleasant and more about finding a sense of control in a situation. When survivors are aware of what topics an article covers, they can better prepare for what the impact might be. With more information and the ability to make their own decisions, survivors can continue healing even when they encounter setbacks.