Trigger Warnings: Do Guidelines Prevent Healing?

In her book, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay discusses everything from Scrabble tournaments to her thoughts on The Help. One essay within the book, The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion, discusses the necessity and problems with trigger warnings. It begins with the author explaining how, in her experience, even the smallest detail can trigger a reminder of her rape, whether it’s passing a group of men clustered together or having her hands pinned above her head unexpectedly during sex. When she is reminded of it, she feels sick, often throws up, breaks into a cold sweat or shuts down and goes “into a quiet place.” The triggers are always waiting for her, a reminder, even when she thinks she is doing better.

Gay goes on to compare trigger warnings to television ratings. In 1954, there was a congressional hearing on television violence. This debate over the amount of violence shown on television has been going on for years. Parental guidelines were set up to help monitor what their children were watching and to help understand what was appropriate for them to watch. The same parental guidelines we use today have been in effect since January 1, 1997.

Gay parallels the use of these guidelines to keep our children safe with the use of trigger warnings to keep those who have undergone trauma safe. Gay explains how “[t]rigger warnings are, essentially, ratings or protective guidelines for the largely unmoderated Internet. Many feminist communities use trigger warnings, particularly in online forums when discussing rape, sexual abuse, and violence. By using these warnings, these communities are saying, ‘This is a safe space. We will protect you from unexpected reminders of your history.’” But Gay sums it up by saying, “Members of these communities are given the illusion they can be protected.”

Essentially, Gay does not believe in trigger warnings. She understands that the debate over whether they are effective or not is complicated and necessary. Ultimately, she believes they are useless. She even gets offended, asking the people who write trigger warnings how they can presume what she needs to be protected from. She goes as far as saying that for her, personally, trigger warnings can start to feel like censorship, hinting at points of view that are inappropriate and explicit. Lastly, she contemplates if trigger warnings are simply barriers that help people learn how to avoid getting actual help and dealing with those very things that cause the triggers.

While she notes that having access to help is a privilege, she thinks it is important to learn how to face triggers, rather than just avoid them completely. Though she is against trigger warnings, she understands that, “in some spaces, we have to err on the side of safety or the illusion thereof. Triggers warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them, just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists. Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need and believe in that safety.”

Are trigger warnings a hindrance or are they functional? For those who have never experienced rape, sexual assault or violence, it may be easy to say that people should just work through the triggers and learn how to deal with them. But what if wherever you went, you had to constantly worry whether anything from an explicit description to a few men staring will cause you to panic? It’s understandable that you would want to avoid these moments as much as possible.

Very often, those who have never experienced rape, sexual assault or violence themselves will brush it off or blame the victim because of what they were wearing, how they were acting or if they had been drinking. However, trigger warnings are not only relevant for these issues. They are, at times, necessary for racism, sexism, cis-sexism, war and other types of oppression.

I have never known what it is like to have a moment, a personal narrative or an image cause such an extreme effect, from sweating or shutting down to even having a panic attack. I imagine having a fear that feeds itself and, I believe, this is why trigger warnings are necessary. In the healing process, victims need safe spaces and these warnings are those safe spaces. By posting a warning before you share explicit content, you are helping victims heal. We need strong allies who are more aware of how their actions will affect others.

However, avoiding reading, watching or going somewhere that might cause a reaction can often be a hindrance. Can a person live their life avoiding every single situation that brings painful memories? Warnings before every situation that may affect someone means a person doesn’t have to think about their past. This could be debilitating in that they may just use trigger warnings as a crutch and avoid getting help.

Wouldn’t it be better to get help and find ways to deal with those triggers, allowing a person to live more freely? I won’t say live without fear, because we are never without fear. Fear is necessary— it shows us our boundaries and helps keeps us safe. Trigger warnings are, in many ways, an wall that protects us from fear. The fear is still there, it can be broken down, sometimes you can see it peeking over. You can put up more and more walls, but it will still be there. Learning how to control that fear and not let it take over your life is important.

I don’t agree with Gay. I think that trigger warnings have a time and place. Much like television guidelines. They are a way to protect your mind and body. I don’t think you can forever avoid situations that will remind you of your past. I think that it is important to process your pain and learn how to heal from it. For every individual, there is a completely different trigger, whether it’s a face that reminds you of your attacker or a song that reminds you of that night. It’s impossible to protect everyone, so maybe a general trigger warning is needed, much like a guidance warning that things are about to become intense.

Writer, photographer and creator of the literary magazine, Persephone’s Daughter, Meggie Royer, writes beautiful honest poems on subjects including love, relationships, sexual assault and self-care. When asked her view on the necessity of these warnings, she said,

“Adding a trigger warning to something takes at the most ten seconds of your time. When you don’t add a trigger warning, it can take an entire day of someone else’s time to recover from reliving the worst moment of their life after reading, or viewing, something they were not prepared for. A trigger warning is a grace note, a calm before the storm. It warns of a burning building or an approaching hurricane. It can’t clear the wreckage, but it can slow the rain. When you neglect to use a trigger warning, you’re still free to leave the house. But when you neglect to use a trigger warning, someone may end up spending the rest of their day in bed, hiding under the covers. Not from monsters or aliens, but from something that happened to them that can never be undone.”

I believe in this. I believe in understanding how your actions affect others. But I also understand that, as Gay says, “[i]t is untenable to go through life as an exposed wound. No matter how well tended, trigger warnings will not staunch the bleeding; trigger warnings will not harden into scabs over your wound…There will always be a finger on the trigger. No matter how hard we try, there’s no way to step out of the line of fire.”

4 thoughts

  1. I am reminded about something that I read about bad things happen to everyone and nobody likes them however how you handle those and things is what causes suffering not the bad things themselves. Attaching to bad things trying to control them or letting them control you are the attitudes that cause suffering. Just as a strong body helps you resist sickness and recover more quickly and healthy mind enables you to bear tragic events more easily, where triggers are concerned. In short I agree with the author

  2. Wow, reading this brought up a lot of anger. Anger about the idea that people who can be triggered are broken and need to hurry up and fix themselves, by facing whatever might trigger them, in every single space they find themselves in, according to ideas that some people have about what might be best.
    As though people who are sometimes triggered have no idea what might be good for them, and they’re choosing to just be wallowing in weakness.
    It seems to me that many people have only the vaguest understanding of what being triggered is, many people seem to consider it a mental choice, within the control of the person ‘making that choice. It’s a physiological response, which is unpredictable. These things are different.
    There seems to be an assumption behind some of the arguments discussed here, that ‘being triggered’ is a simple thing that always happens the same way. What really happens is that there are times when it’s okay to read or watch most things, times when it’s really not a good idea to choose certain topics to read about or encounter visually, and times when I’m not sure. Being triggered is not a ‘bad’ thing that means I’m ‘not healed’. It’s a completely value neutral thing that means my nervous system is responding at a variety of levels of intensity for a wide range of reasons from moment to moment. Ideas that I can control that and it’s ‘fixable’ and ‘should be fixed’ are wildly off the mark.
    It’s not a simple, linear, consistent thing that happens. It can have a lot to do with neurological load in the moment. And who knows what else.
    I may read something without warning and fall apart and it’s a complete surprise to me. I may read the same thing the next day and be fine. I may read the same thing another day and just have rumblings of discomfort along a scale of neurological response. I’m not broken. I don’t need ‘fixing’ or to ‘go find better ways of healing’.
    I simply have a variety of neurological responses, and sometimes those responses can make it harder for me to do the things I need to do on a particular day after encountering certain things.
    If there is a warning, I can choose. I wildly resent the idea that other people want to choose for me, that ‘I need to deal with things to hurry up and heal’ on somebody else’s schedule, according to somebody else’s ideas.
    There are times when I know I won’t read or watch something with a trigger warning. Then it’s ‘trigger warning? Okay, great, not gonna go there’.
    There are times when I know it will probably be okay to read, or watch, or at least I feel okay to have a look.
    There are times when I’m not sure, and then I get to decide, maybe I’ll look, maybe I won’t.
    I get to push the envelope according to my own moment by moment sense of it, and that’s a good thing.
    I do like having the option, at least in some spaces, to choose.
    The spaces that use trigger warnings help me to tune in to my own process and choose accordingly.
    The idea that trigger warnings are somehow coddling the weak and encouraging the avoidance of healing…I call bs. But only 100%.
    Are some people forgetting that there is the whole rest of the world we get to operate in?
    I can only speak for myself in this I suppose, and I am grateful for the sense of being at least considered and offered a choice in those spaces that do use trigger warnings. That does not automatically imply total avoidance either.
    ‘You should hurry up and heal so that I’m more comfortable’ just doesn’t wash. Neither does the assumption that people are not doing anything to ‘heal’ other than demanding trigger warnings.
    ‘Wouldn’t it be better to get help…somewhere I don’t have to consider you?’ is what I’m hearing.
    “Wouldn’t it be better to get help…because you obviously never tried that’ is what I’m hearing.
    Personally, I’m quite sure we can all do better than that at seeing each other more clearly.
    Thanks for the discussion. I’m glad it’s something people are thinking about.
    I will take any trigger warnings with gratitude in the spaces where they show up, and if they cease to exist, I will deal, like I do everywhere else.
    There is one important thing that’s worth considering though; it’s always an option to ask people what would be ‘better’ for them. Asking, and not telling, seems like generally a good move.
    I agree with your conclusion here. I am not remotely ‘an exposed wound’. Just an ordinary person who has had certain experiences that impact on my neurological response sometimes.

  3. Abi Tiki, I’m sorry if what I wrote upset you, that was not my intention at all. The subject of trigger warnings is a touchy subject for all involved. This is why I used the writing of someone experienced in the subject as a jumping off point. I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject at all, which was why I weighed the pros and cons. I understand your anger at the idea that trigger warnings are coddling the weak and encouraging the avoidance of healing or that people who need them aren’t healed. I should have thought more before I wrote that. Everyone has a unique narrative and experience. I agree that I shouldn’t have grouped them all together.

    I understand that no matter how much research I do, I still come at this from a place that’s ignorant. I apologize for saying that trigger warnings could be a crutch, that people who use them aren’t trying to heal and that trigger warnings aren’t an important part of the process.

    However, nowhere in my piece do I say or hint that people should “‘… hurry up and heal so that I’m more comfortable.” I even conclude by saying that a general trigger warning is needed. Nowhere do I say that people should heal, so we don’t need trigger warnings anymore. At the end I disagree with Gay, which I state clearly. I understand that we are all human and have different ways of dealing with trauma in our life. I don’t confess to have all the answers and I’m not telling people how to get help or to get help so I’m more comfortable. I would never try to do that.

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