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Content and Trigger Warnings

Where did trigger warnings come from?

A trigger warning is a message presented to an audience about the contents of a piece of media, to warn them that it contains potentially distressing content. [X]

The concept of triggers goes back as far as 1918 when psychologists attempted to understand “war neurosis” in veterans of World War One and, eventually, World War Two. This was when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) came on the scene.

It was originally coined in the clinical sense after becoming a diagnosable disorder in 1980. It initially faced controversy but became a very important part of bridging the gap between psychological theory and practice. It changed the way we viewed and dealt with trauma.

It brought forth the idea that the issue lay with “outside sources” (ie: the triggers) and not within the patient.

There’s even a specific criterion to meet before being diagnosed with PTSD– being exposed to a traumatic situation. It is difficult because trauma can mean different things for different people. Some people who do experience traumatic events continue on with no side effects, others experience full-blown PTSD. People can have different trauma thresholds (much like how we experience pain).

However, seeing the trigger coming can prove difficult. It can be caused by a smell, a sound, a place, or even the way someone approaches you. War veterans with fireworks, rape survivors with people who look similar to their assailant, shelter dogs with their owners raising their hands– truly the field for triggers is vast and unpredictable.

So how did we get to them being used in so many common places?

Content warnings were in the media long before the internet era. Warnings on TV shows or movies (“viewer discretion is advised”), ratings on movies, violence warnings at the beginning of a video game, or explicit content on CD albums.

With the birth of the internet, the phrase essentially took on a life of its own.

People on Livejournal began using it to warn of triggering content (many of it to do with eating disorders, sexual assault, or self-harm) and eventually made its way to Twitter, Facebook, and beyond.

That expansion is revealed by statements that trigger warnings relate to material that is “emotionally confronting” or “distressing” rather than narrowly traumatic. Indeed, much of the content now subject to trigger warnings has no direct association with trauma in the psychiatric sense. [X]

Of course, the more the phrase was used and the broader the “triggers” became, the more critique it garnered.

"As a human being you're responsible for what media you engage with. If a Jezebel headline says 'harrowing,' or 'terrible,' or 'horrible,' that's a pretty good indicator that the content will be difficult," Coen said. "That's the web standard. If you start warning for one thing, you have to decide which unpleasant thing is worth a trigger and which isn't. That isn't a position an editor should be in." [X]

Now, explicit content (like extreme gore or violence) can be a different story. Those are things that can be more commonly agreed upon being harder to stomach for the majority of people. Those phrases commonly being added to movies, TVs and videos can give a welcome heads up to the type of content one is going to be exposed to.

However, it is ultimately up to the viewer or “consumer” to decide whether or not they still wish to continue. It is also worth noting that using the phrase “trigger warning” for things that may not evoke a serious trigger, can take value away from the psychological PTSD side of the argument. Much like pollen to an asthmatic, their reactions are involuntary.

Triggers stem from a place of horror and fear. But distress and disgust aren’t quite under the trigger category. They might go better under the “content advisory” category.

Either way, the notion can become, at times, confusing and muddy. How many triggers do you list? What counts as triggers? What will upset some but not others?

At the end of the day, it is your job as the “audience” to deem what you can and cannot handle. While avoiding things may not help it get better, if you see something that may be triggering it is up to you on how to handle it. Leaving the room, taking a break– those are all very personal thresholds to monitor.

It is unrealistic to think we won’t encounter triggers as we make our way through our lives. However, you are well within your rights to filter the things you can to make your life more enjoyable.

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