In defence of trigger warnings

Trigger warnings have become an increasingly popular topic of debate recently and there seem to be countless articles written on the subject. They also seem to be getting a bit of a bad reputation. There are some who say they oppress free speech, whilst others argue that they allow people to avoid anything that may upset them and simply mollycoddle people. There have been passionate points of view put forward from both sides of the ‘are trigger warnings good or bad’ debate, and I’ve never really weighed in on it until now because I’ve been struggling to articulate my opinion of them.

I don’t have any intention of arguing with people about whether I believe their opinion is right or wrong about trigger warnings. People are perfectly entitled to have an opinion either for or against them, just as much as someone else is entitled to disagree with that point of view (that is, after all, one of the many joys of living in a society where we are allowed to form our own opinions on a whole manner of topics). This post isn’t intended to be the kind that says “you’re wrong to think this or that”. This post is more me talking about the benefits trigger warnings can have and how they can help those who have experienced trauma cope with the very real prospect of having to relive their experience because of the many things that are thrown at you left, right and centre as you make your way through life as a survivor.

 

There are some trigger warnings which are particularly relevant to my life, but I have never taken one as a reason to not read something or engage in a debate because that’s not what they are there for. They are actually there to warn me about what I am about to have to confront within myself for the umpteenth time.

Recently I read something that was accompanied with a warning. TW: Sexual Assault, it said. This trigger warning comes up on my newsfeed quite regularly and I read them in the knowledge that I am going to be distressed with what I read because of my experience with sexual assault. What I read in the aforementioned piece was upsetting. I was shocked about what I read and it stunned me in a way that even the trigger warning couldn’t fully prepare me for. But that warning still played an important role in that it did prepare me just that little bit, and had I not been warned about what I was about to read the shock and emotion I felt would have been significantly greater. The warning meant I could read what followed and be ready for the heart-wrenching feeling it caused, the knots in my stomach that stayed there for hours on end and the feelings it made me relive.

As I’ve thought about trigger warnings more and more, I started to wonder about where else we have them. You see I’m sure there are some who would say that the real world doesn’t come with trigger warnings. To an extent they are right. When it comes to our face-to-face interactions with people it is not the ‘norm’ in many places to state a trigger warning before you speak about potentially distressing topics (and the instances where this does happen are greatly appreciated by many). I’ve been trying to think of areas where trigger warnings are given implicitly, and there aren’t a huge amount I can think of. Any that I could think of I would argue with myself are not actually trigger warnings, but content notes, and that’s when I started to question the difference between the two.

The ‘technical’ difference between trigger warnings and content notes is that a trigger warning is used to indicate to those who have experienced trauma that what they are going to read, watch or hear may cause them to re-experience the physical and/or psychological responses they had in their past experience(s), in that harrowing moment that will always be engrained on their memory.

Content notes differ from trigger warnings in that they are there to provide facts about what something contains. For example, a content note may say that something is about mental health stigma. A person who has experienced this stigma regularly may decide to not engage with this because they have to face it so regularly they don’t feel the need to read about it and are just a bit sick of it. They may decide to read about it one day but not be that fussed the next. Other’s may choose not to read it because they don’t believe people with mental health issues face stigma…

The way I think of it is by adapting the ‘all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumbs’ analogy. All trigger warnings are also content notes but not all content notes are trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings are there to allow people who have experienced trauma to be prepared to relive it. Content notes are there for everyone to make a decision as to whether they want to read or watch something on a particular topic, but they can also act as a trigger warning in some instances.

When I think about content notes, I can see quite a few examples of them all around us that we don’t really bat an eye to, and often they double as trigger warnings without us really realising it.

When I write my blog posts I can add tags which allow people to search for things written on a particular topic. They are not intended to be trigger warnings, but someone may see that I have added a ‘sexual assault’ tag to something and it makes them aware that something I have written may lead to them re-experiencing their own trauma and experience with it. Whilst I have never explicitly added trigger warnings to anything I have written, I have tried to make a difficult topic explicit in a title and added a note at the start to say that what I have written may upset people. It is my way of saying that what you are about to read could cause distress and that it is your decision if you want to read it. It is a content note for those who have not experienced sexual assault. It is also a trigger warning for those who have.

There are other examples of where content notes can also double as trigger warnings out there. A prime example is films and their certificate ratings.

Every film nowadays is accompanied by a certificate from the BBFC to give an indication as to what the film is going to be like. A U-rated film is most likely going to be childish and feel-good, whilst with a rated-18 almost anything goes. Alongside these letters and numbers is something else – there are notes. A rated-18 can include anything from horror and gore to obscene profanities and sexual violence. There are some films which I will avoid because they contain blood and gore and all things ‘ew’ – here I choose not to see them because of their content. They’re just not my cup of tea.

Films that contain sexual violence, on the other hand, are a bit more complicated for me. Here, the content note that has been added about it (or not added) also acts as a trigger warning. Different film ratings can contain sexual violence at different levels, from not-at-all in U-rated films, to only being brief in 15-rated films and anything-goes in 18-rated films (because of the BBFC recognising that it is up to an adult to make a decision as to what they wish to watch so long as it is within the law). Some people may not wish to watch a film with sexual violence because it is their personal choice, regardless of personal experiences. They have taken a note of what the content is and decided that it isn’t for them.

But those who have experienced trauma may still elect to watch these films. It may be that they need to watch it for a class at university. It may be that they are watching it with friends who don’t know that they were sexually assaulted. This content note then also acts as a trigger warning. It is telling the person who has experienced trauma that they are about to relive it. It warns them they about to experience emotions that are incredibly difficult for them, but it lets them prepare. They can anticipate. They can get ready. They can cope. Having that warning means we can face those uncomfortable moments and can stop them affecting our lives as much.

As someone who now gets quite uncomfortable watching violence in films, these notes that act as warnings for me don’t stop me from watching a film that may make me upset. There are many major films and franchises out there that incorporate violence in some way. Marvel, Bond, Bourne. All have some degree of violence in them that causes me a degree of anxiety that can on occasion mean reliving the trauma I once experienced. But why should the trauma that someone else caused me mean that I have to stop doing things that I enjoy because of the potential for me feel s****y and vulnerable? When it comes to films, the content notes that they have about violence also act as a trigger warning that means I can go in there with the knowledge that what I will watch will upset me. But I’m prepared for it. It means I can feel more in control and continue to live my life without having to avoid things out of the fear of being thrown in at the deep end completely out of the blue. There are already many areas in life that can be difficult for survivors to face because of feelings being drudged up from nowhere, because there are so many things that can’t be controlled or avoided that act as triggers. Notes and warnings in the areas where they are possible mean that they are still accessible to us in as close a way as possible compared to before.

In my mind, trigger warnings aren’t there to facilitate avoidance of a particular topic. If anything, that is the purpose of a content note. They are factual and there purely for information purposes to allow people to decide whether or not they want to expose themselves to something. I avoid films and books containing horror because of the content. I don’t avoid anything else.

Trigger warnings are there to do what they say. They’re there to warn us. They warn us what we’re about to have to go through yet again. The times you relive it are countless. The ones where you don’t see it coming are crushing. The ones where you do see it coming are bearable. Just about. They allow us to hold back the tears. To speak up. To say the things that otherwise would be too difficult to say because we haven’t had the time to process the huge jumble that’s going on inside our head because we’re reliving that moment when nothing made sense.

To paraphrase an article I read the other day, “It reminds you to be aware of the coping strategies that you have developed and switch them on”. It helps us get through those dark moments when we have to relive the worst moment of our life. Trigger warnings aren’t there to make us avoid something. They’re there to help us face it head on and give us a small sense of security when we have to think about that moment that we never saw coming yet again. There are so many occasions when we have to re-face our past experiences without any warning, and those times are incredibly difficult because they come out of nowhere. Maybe ‘real life’ doesn’t have trigger warnings, but it would be a heck of a lot safer if it did.

Slowly we are able to deal with the unexpected more and more. We are able to recover. But in those darkest moments of our life, and in the weeks, months or years that followed, the trigger warnings mean we can be prepared for the raw emotions that continually bubble to the surface and help us learn how to cope.

They allow us to continue to engage with the world without letting the past hold us back.

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