Good Reasons to Include Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings: Very brief mentions of childhood sexual abuse, rape, war, and armed robbery

It is sad and frustrating that even today, in 2020, trigger warnings are still controversial. It is just another sign that mental health stigma is still alive and strong. I think that lack of collective understanding about triggers is what fuels the stigma. In fact, I believe that overall stigma against mental illness is caused by a lack of basic understanding of mental illnesses and people who have them.

What is a trigger, you ask? A trigger, simply put, is a phrase or action that causes a person who has PTSD to go back to their traumatic memories and possibly relive the entire memory in their head all over again. As you may guess, it is very disruptive to the life of a person who has PTSD. A trigger is not simply something that causes annoyance in someone who does not have PTSD. 

Examples of triggers may be talk about childhood sexual abuse, rape, war, and armed robbery. You may not know whether anyone in your audience has lived through any of these experiences, so it is best to be sensitive about what you disclose. You do not have to avoid talking about the traumatic experience altogether — just say in the beginning of your conversation or speech that you will be talking about topics that may be triggering to someone with PTSD. That will give the person an opportunity to leave the conversation. 

There is nothing wrong with a person who has PTSD and does not want to encounter their triggers. They are on their own journey of healing from their traumatic past. Someday, they may be ready to hear about other people’s traumatic incidents, but in the meantime, display some decency and allow the person with PTSD to heal on their own timeline, on their own terms.

Trigger warnings are not cop-outs for people with PTSD. If anything, it makes them more productive members of society because they are not disrupted by their triggers. It could ruin the person’s day or week if they hear a description of their trigger without warning. They may not be able to participate in conversations or be able to complete their work. But if the conversation is prefaced with a trigger warning, it most likely will not disrupt their life.

If your argument against using trigger warnings is “In my day, we never used trigger warnings, and we turned out just fine. You all are a bunch of snowflakes.” Trust me, you all are not fine. You just never talked about what really bothered or traumatized you. The stigma against mental illness is prevalent throughout society and throughout history. Even now, some people are afraid to admit that they have a mental illness without being locked up in an institution, although most state hospitals in the United States, where people with chronic mental illnesses were housed, were shut down beginning in the 1960s. 

The best reason to include trigger warnings is to help do your part to end the stigma against mental illness. By continuing the conversation about how people with mental illnesses are affected by their environment, we can come to a collective understanding about the effects of mental illnesses and ultimately erase the stigma. 

If you are still against using trigger warnings, then educate yourself about PTSD. Read scholarly articles and anecdotes of people who live with PTSD. Ask me questions — I have PTSD. Also, ask yourself, “What if someone upset me to the point of ruining my day when they should have known better?” Put yourself in their shoes. 

Don’t be that person who ruins someone else’s day when you had the power to spare them pain. Flashbacks are very real. At least, they are real to the person who had to endure the traumatic experience. Triggers can take the person with PTSD back, in their mind, to vivid memories of the traumatic incidents. Think of when you had vivid nightmares as a child (or now, if you still experience them). Do you really want to inflict that on another person whose nightmares were their true past?

Do you use trigger warnings when you have difficult conversations with people? If you did not before, will you consider doing so now? If you still do not want to use trigger warnings, then why not?

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