Author’s Note: If you’ve been around here awhile you’ll know this is standard fare from me at this point, but I repeat it for new folks: anything in this post is my opinion as one person not as a monolith. Nothing in this post can or should be used against other people in the same communities I describe.
Trigger/Content Warnings: This post talks about trigger/content warning discourse. Also describes in detail what a triggering event can be like. Brief description of child abuse and related triggering event thereafter; flashbacks; disassociation. References to childhood abuse and trauma.
Let me put this right up front for the TL;DR crowd. I am pro using trigger and content warnings. I am anti policing how people ascribe these things to their personal experiences. I am pro self-exploration about using these words more carefully. I also think we need to do a better job explaining what they are, how they’re different, and why we use them. I also believe failure to do so has caused harm to the communities who need them most.
Trigger; Triggering; To be Triggered
To be perfectly frank, because that’s what I do here, I have a very complicated relationship with the way the term “trigger” has evolved. For me, a person who has C-PTSD (and other mental health issues I don’t need or want to list out today), “trigger” has a very specific meaning. That meaning is the one used by most psychiatrists and psychologists and goes something like this: a trigger is a stimulus that causes a painful memory to resurface (usually the definition used in the context of C-PTSD or PTSD), or a stimulus that activates or worsens the symptoms of a mental health condition. Trigger doesn’t mean something offensive or a bit uncomfortable. It isn’t something that makes me a little sad or a little yick or a little anxious. To be triggered for someone like me means to be mentally fucked for a time.
Considering the volume of trauma I’ve been through, I’m not actually triggered that often. When I was younger, it happened more, but honestly, I couldn’t explain to you what the source of the triggering thing was. Now, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been truly triggered in the past five years. But I sure as shit know when I am and what caused it. This is a primary goal of trauma work: identifying triggers and finding ways to lessen their impact on your life.
Impact. That’s what triggers have. That’s what that word is meant to mean.
My C-PTSD wasn’t caused by any one thing, that’s what makes it different from PTSD without the C. A bunch of it stems from early childhood trauma though. I grew up in a violent, chaotic, loud environment. So, I have some sensory issues related to noise (as in, I don’t like it) but I don’t consider all noise triggering, or even all loud noise. Sometimes, when I’m overly stressed or highly tuned in, certain noises irritate me, or distract me. They might even become at times physically irritating, almost like a sting beneath my skin. Those aren’t triggers for me. More like irritations. They’re uncomfortable in the way too many bugs flying around you, ruining your otherwise pleasant picnic might be uncomfortable. Maybe it escalates into the bugs taking a bite or two, causing some frustration or agitation. Is it annoying? Yes. Would I rather it not? Yes. Is it outside the realm of a normal human emotion? Not really. I mean maybe in the sense that most people don’t find noise mildly painful, I suppose. But the emotion itself is not wildly disproportionate in a way that escalates my preexisting mental illnesses or causes a flashback or has any real impact on my life beyond fleeting, everyday annoyance.
This is where I’m going to describe a triggering event: Yelling, child abuse. And its impacts: Disassociation. Skip until next bold (after the photo of the bathtub).
What is a trigger for me is the particular noise of a mother screaming while beating her child.
Before I moved to my current home, I lived in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors in the same building a few apartments down constantly yelled at her kids. It bothered me but not to the level of a full-blown trigger. However, one day, I heard her screaming at one of her children. The sound carried through the walls, and with it came the very distinct whap of an object against bare skin. The child screamed. Begged. I had a flashback, then disassociated.
The next thing I remember was coming back to myself to find I was sitting in my bathtub, fully clothed, hands over my ears, rocking back and forth while tears streamed down my cheeks. I have no idea how long I’d been there. Long enough my legs ached and my throat hurt from crying, maybe even screaming.
That is triggering. Real live in the flesh triggering for someone who has a bona fide psychological disorder.
Who determines what is “triggering?”
The person who experiences triggers determines what they are.
The thing about triggers is they’re highly individualized. No two people have the same set of experiences, or the same brain, so it’s impossible to understand how someone will react to a particular stimulus under any set of conditions. I’ve done years and years of trauma work. In the beginning of this work, I was unable to determine what my triggers were. I knew things triggered flashbacks, and disassociation, that something made me start screaming for seemingly no reason, but it was difficult to discern what those things were. A key part of my early trauma work was focused on identifying triggers (or potential triggers) and working on ways to manage them. I did this with a therapist who specializes in trauma treatment.
I mention it because it’s important to understand that for some people, knowing what their own triggers are might be harder than you’d expect. They’re not as clear cut as the neat little warnings we often see at the top of the page. So if triggers “change” for someone, that’s not abnormal. It’s also why triggers are often given in broad contexts sweeping a range of topics: “abuse,” “trauma,” “domestic violence,” “assault,” because people who experience triggers might not know what specific thing in that wide category will trigger them, but they might know that category contains their past and that content should be avoided. Over the years of my personal trauma work, my trigger sensitivity has been seriously reduced. Not everyone is able to do that or is at that stage in their journey.
Basically, this is not the trauma Olympics. We’re not here to put our scars on display for you to evaluate if that’s a “good enough” reason for us to say “this thing is genuinely triggering to me.” You’ll note I didn’t describe the individual Bad Shit that happened to me as a kid in my story above. Because it’s none of your business. You don’t get to decide if whatever I went through was “bad enough” to warrant my response to my neighbor’s behavior. I control that. Well, I don’t actually which is the annoying part. Because, trust me, if I could make my triggers go away, I would. They’re not pleasant. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve been doing trauma work for a million years instead of putting that money toward I don’t know… literally anything else.
“Trigger” should be used with discernment and self-reflection
Here’s where it gets tricky. I do think the terminology has been a bit… overused. That’s why I provided an example of the reaction I have to a trigger. Reminder about the monolith thing I said at the beginning. And of the definition I used of the word trigger. The reaction doesn’t have to be that extreme for you to consider something triggering. However, a trigger is meant to mean more than, “This makes me feel an unpleasant emotion within the realm of the ‘normal’ human experience.” Feeling sad is normal. Feeling anxious is normal. Feeling uncomfortable is normal. Feeling pissed off is normal. Feeling triggered is distinctly not normal.
The reason this matters is because when the word trigger is misappropriated in day-to-day speech, those who need this language to better explain what’s happening to them are stripped of its value. If the word trigger is so frequently used to mean something less than its definition, it’s devalued. This means the only recourse I have to explain my emotional reaction to a stimulus is to put the actual emotional reaction on display (which in and of itself can be retraumatizing).
I have strange feelings about people who ascribe the word “trigger” to something other than what its general psychological definition is, because this word was given to me and people like me who are suffering immense emotional pain so we might explain that pain without having to relive it. I also have an issue with the idea there is a “trauma” trigger and a sort of everyday use of the word trigger. While practically, I think that might at this point true, it again puts the onus of explanation onto the population whose language was stolen. Triggers also apply to communities of people who don’t have trauma, for one. So to exclude them from their language is a poor solution. And for those who do have triggers because of trauma, forcing us to further delineate “trigger” to “trauma trigger” outs us in ways we perhaps did not want to be outed. Finally, many people have comorbidities that cause this discernment to be almost impossible. I joke with close friends pretty regularly about, “Is it trauma or is it my [x other neurodiversity, mental illness, etc.]?” But the joke hides pain. It’s hard to live like this. Constantly questioning what part of your twisted brain made you lose time this time. Putting the burden of waging that battle of defining pieces of self on people already struggling to do it is unfair and to be honest, cruel. A trigger is a trigger. Sometimes it’s trauma, sometimes it’s not. Always it’s more than uncomfortable.
To be clear: I’m not here to police anyone’s use of the word. This is meant to be a self-exploration exercise only. If you’re using the word casually or colloquially or flippantly, or you might be, or you’re asking communities to drill down language that was already intended to mean a specific thing, then a reexamination could be in order because the casual use of the word is doing actual damage to people who need it.
What is a Content Warning?
Content warnings can be sort of nebulous. However, I put content warnings in the category of the things you maybe shouldn’t be using the word trigger for. In the context of writing, because that’s what this blog is about, content warnings describe things that may be upsetting or uncomfortable or even things people simply don’t want to read about. Or read about at that particular moment, anyway.
Difference between Content and Trigger Warnings
What makes something a Content Warning or a Trigger Warning is not determined by the person writing, it’s determined by the person reading. That’s what makes them difficult for people to differentiate between because the writer has to use them interchangeably to accommodate multiple unknown readers (i.e. something that could be triggering to me might be something that just makes you uncomfortable, or vice versa).
So, if you’re the person doing their level best to alert readers about what’s coming, using content and trigger warnings interchangeably makes sense as you don’t know your reader. If you’re the person talking about your own TWs and CWs, you should delineate to make room for the nuance in the definitions.
For example, for me personally, I have never experienced a trigger in writing. I think that’s probably because of the way my brain processes information. My trauma is triggered by senses. A book doesn’t have much sensory output (in that it’s not yelling, or flashing lights at me, or smelling of alcohol, etc.). However, I prefer not to read books featuring trauma where the author doesn’t have a personal experience of trauma, because I often find the representations to be poor, stereotypical, and sometimes cruel, and I walk away feeling depressed, uncomfortable, or just pissed. A general content warning is helpful for me, so I know to look into the origin of the author (if that information is readily available), or read reviews to see how other people found the representation, or simply tread lightly on a day I have spoons.
Use of Content and Trigger Warnings
Step One: Use Them
You can’t know someone else’s life or their experiences. Just because you went through some shit and aren’t triggered doesn’t mean other people had the same experience. Again, we are not here to play trauma Olympics with one another. Don’t be an asshole, use CWs and TWs. You should do your best to use them all the time but especially if someone specifically points out they’d like them. Triply if someone is like THE FOLLOWING THINGS TRIGGER ME LET ME KNOW IF I’M ABOUT TO GO THERE.
If you forget, I’ll remind you to be kind to yourself. Messing up happens. We’re all human. I forget sometimes too, and I’m literally here writing this post at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday after working like 75 hours this week because I care about this topic so much. So, give yourself some slack. Unless you’re being an asshole about it and wantonly refusing to use them because you think people should toughen up. If that is you, I’ll remind you to be kinder to others. And honestly maybe yourself. Because you either have no idea what trauma is like, or you do and you think everyone should suck it up like you have and that is… well, a post for another day.
Step Two: Respect Requests to Include Them
Probably the weirdest thing I’ve seen lately in the writing community is people challenging agents on their ask that TWs and CWs be provided. I mean, listen, this is your future career and all, but my advice is to not do that. Besides being a super bad take for all the reasons I mentioned above about people’s need for them, it’s also just not professional to willfully refuse to do something beneficial to the mental health of the person you’re courting to be your future business partner.
Outside of querying, you should still honor requests to use trigger and content warnings by people when they’re given. The requests are likely not made lightly.
Step Three: Do Not Challenge People’s TWs and CWs
This one is harder than it seems and honestly I’m not 100% sure it’s the completely right advice, so bear with me. There are, in my mind, a spectrum of “Challengers.” On one end are people you should aspire to never be. On the other end might actually be me because here I am writing this post. Nuance. Brains. Complicated topics. Oh my.
Type One: That Asshole. You know the one. The one who has a Twitter bio that’s like “White man and proud. Trump 2024. God, guns, guts. Eats libtards for breakfast.” That’s the one who like gets up in people’s Twitter space and say shit like, “Trigger warnings HA! Do you need a safe space too?” Or “I’ll make sure to send you my [exactly the book the agent requests not to see in their inbox] LOL.” Or the slightly less aggressive but still douchey, “I’m not really a big believer in trigger warnings.” Cool, Tom. They’re not for you. And let me get ahead of you to say I don’t give a shit whether you believe my C-PTSD is real or not.
This type you should never, ever be. But I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this blog that. Still, any variation on this is a no go. Basically, please refrain from aggressively questioning someone’s triggers or content warning needs because it’s invasive and rude. I might be the type to explain to you in a 7 page blog post about why I need trigger and content warnings and what my precise trauma is, but most people aren’t and shouldn’t be asked to. Whatever caused the need for the warnings is probably hard enough as it is.
Type Two: This Asshole. As in very possibly me. I’m not sure. I much prefer people do self-exploration and reflection to determine if their use of these terms is appropriate when they take into consideration the harm it could be doing to communities that need the language, as I’ve mentioned. However, this blog isn’t going to reach everyone. More like a couple hundred someones. That probably isn’t enough to reclaim the language. And not everyone is going to be self-reflective after reading a long ass blog from some random person on the internet. So what about calling out people’s use of the term nicely?
I’ve seen it done tactfully. Kindly. Gently. I’ve seen people say ‘I have this lived experience, and if you’re using this term loosely or in a knee-jerk way please be mindful of the people it hurts.’ I’ve nodded along with these people. Celebrated that someone finally said it. Then watched them get dragged on Twitter for daring to question a fellow survivor’s experience. Annnnnnnd I see that side, too. Who are we to know? I mean, I think I know. Even now I’m half typing out explanations of how I know, but ultimately no one can know their life except them. So reiterations of self-reflection are as far as I’m willing to go. I just… I would hate to be wrong and hurt someone else more than they’ve already been hurt, I guess. Even though I do really see the collective damage it’s doing. Have felt it myself. Understand the desire to make it stop. But I’ve always been about gentle pushes in the right direction more than sweeping gestures that burn hot and fade fast.
Step Four: There is no step four
Tada! I’m done. It was long again. Sorry. Please accept this token picture of my cat, Apollo, who has lived for 16 years through all my bullshit, just as you, dear reader, have lived through this long ass post full of my bullshit.
Until next random thought, please remember: language matters, and be kind to yourself and others!