What are trigger warnings?
You’ve likely heard a TV news presenter say “The following report contains imagery which some viewers may find distressing”. A trigger warning is very similar but is typically more specific and therefore more useful.
In general, a trigger warning is an early indication of an upcoming subject matter which is likely or certain to come up at some point in a discussion, talk, film, images, or piece of text. They can be written (on a reading list, or poster for example), or issued verbally at the beginning of a class, lecture, presentation, or event.
What is a trigger?
Triggers are stimuli which cause a very specific psychological and/or physical reaction: either a trauma response, or the triggering of behaviours and compulsions in people with e.g. depression and anxiety disorders, PTSD, eating disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder.
Why do things need trigger warnings?
Trigger warnings are designed to help and support people who may otherwise be negatively affected by some discussions. Using trigger warnings won’t take much effort, once you get into the habit, and will positively impact the experience of many people.
Giving a trigger warning can be as simple as saying at the beginning of a lecture ‘please note that this lecture will contain a discussion of sexual assault, or saying ‘the next slide has a depiction of physical violence’.
What needs a trigger warning?
There is no perfect answer but common trigger warnings include discussion of:
- Physical violence,
- Sexual violence,
- Abuse (including emotional abuse),
- Drug or alcohol abuse,
- Eating disorders, and
- Suicide and self-harm.
If you think something may need a trigger warning, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and give a warning. If someone has specifically requested that you warn for a specific theme or topic, this really should be respected.
Waiting until someone requests a warning may mean it will be too late. Consider that some people may be uncomfortable disclosing their need for trigger warnings, but will greatly appreciate them being used.
Doesn’t this shut down debate?
Trigger warnings are designed to facilitate debate, discussion, and engagement.
If someone is taken unawares and has a trauma response triggered by the issues being discussed, then they are unlikely to be able to engage with these issues. By providing a chance for them to prepare themselves enables them to participate.
Needing trigger warnings is not the same as being offended. Trigger warnings serve similar purposes to film ratings or warnings prior to TV shows about upsetting content, and are a simple and very easy way to make activities and discussions more accessible.