Trigger Warnings

Trigger Warnings (TW) are labels that we are well-acquainted with today. The term comes from the vocabulary of therapy especially for PTSD, where an individual who has undergone trauma is ‘triggered’ by something that they come across, creating a negative emotional response. It has been extrapolated into mainstream discourse as a measure to help in such situations. ‘Trigger warning’ is meant to be used before content that some may find distressing or triggering owing to their past traumas or experiences. It appears widely on social media platforms, spaces of activism, and even in classrooms to alert students about potentially distressing images or texts that may come up in class. These can include images such as those of violence or mutilation, discussions or descriptions of instances relating to racism, sexism, misogyny, discrimination, rape, murder, etc. , or any topic that is connected to traumas. Trigger warnings acknowledge the existence of trauma and give them legitimacy, allowing individuals to mentally prepare themselves should the content be triggering.

close up photo of caution signage
Photo by Viajero on

However, a careful understanding of the dynamics of trigger warnings is worth looking into in the current scenario since the term is a pointer towards a much larger framework of engagement. Particularly when cancel culture is in vogue and anyone who speaks against anything that is not agreed upon by those who control that space is “cancelled”, labeling what others say as ‘triggering’ can be used as a weapon to attack anyone who might disagree. It is important to note that this is not about legitimate concerns and harm inflicted, but about those who use such labels as a defense to escape accountability or use activism as a facade for their own ends. While there are always individuals whose experiences have made their apprehension of such content extremely difficult, there seems to be an increasing proclivity towards considering being triggered as providing legitimacy, especially if one’s voice is to be heard. A Harvard researcher opines that it only encourages people to see trauma as central to their identity. However, that is not healthy for them. There can come a point when any opinion that might be against or even deviant from the popular discourse among a certain group be considered “triggering”. It can be used to permit behaviors that focus on destroying rather than constructively criticizing. Mindful responses are given away in favor of immediate reactions, creating echo chambers where no one who might disagree is allowed to enter. This only leads to the deterioration of any movement or cause, since it effectively cuts off all engagement with another.

It is also important to understand that while we may be able to move away by seeing the label TW, there is someone, and often a group of people, for whom what we move away from seeing is their everyday lived reality. It is our privilege, to an extent, that lets us walk away. While we should not discount our mental states, we should not promote avoidance as a coping mechanism. Adoption of trigger warnings itself has been questioned by academicians who opine that it only leads to lower levels of resistance and consequently, a decreasing capacity to engage or bring change. It is interesting that therapy for those who have experienced trauma does not go the way of avoiding all triggers, but gradually increasing exposure to them under the guidance of an expert. Only then can we say that the person is on the road to healing. This is a difficult process but considered necessary. Otherwise, the patient will be a victim of the experience all through their lives. And a growing of body of research suggests that trigger warnings do not really help a person who faces such struggles. In fact, it might even have the opposite effect by making him weaker and more sensitive to anything that could potentially cause distress. Seeing TW itself can instinctively cause a negative reaction. This will also render him incapable of adequate response when he might be faced with such a situation in real life without any warning. Avoidance does not help with learning nor with the skills to properly respond. Being fragile in such respects is not something to be aspired to, but something to be dealt with gently for those who are struggling, and to be overcome with support and care.

So, while trigger warnings are useful, the manner in which we think about them might need to change. They should not be an excuse to leave every single time, but more of a “proceed with caution” sign. They should exist as a marker that reminds us of the need for change, and an opportunity to be mindful of how we engage with the content that is presented to us. We might not be able to deal well with all content overnight, but gradually we will be able to not leave the space but stay and meaningfully act in spite of our discomfort, and to provide encouragement to those facing similar struggles. It will also allow us to be better allies to those the mention of whose experiences we find triggering. Our mental health is important, but strength can be built over time with exposure, and we should consider if we are to privilege how something makes us feel over how that something is a lived reality that is affecting lives on the ground, and what we can do about it.

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