Trigger Warnings: What are they, and do we need them?

Trigger Warnings

Requesting trigger warnings for content is nothing new, but I’ve seen it discussed more often lately than I had before. It’s not something I’ve discussed on Read Yourself Happy before, so I wanted to give my thoughts some space here.

A trigger warning is intended to let readers or consumers know ahead of time if a piece of media contains content that could cause anxiety or distress in people who have experienced past trauma. This doesn’t just affect literature; students have been requesting that university professors warn them of triggers for years. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC),

Although fewer than 1% of survey participants reported that their institution had adopted a policy on trigger warnings, 7.5% reported that students had initiated efforts to require trigger warnings on campus, twice as many (15%) reported that students had requested warnings in their courses, and 12% reported that students had complained about the absence of trigger warnings. Despite a media narrative of “political correctness,” student requests concerned a diverse range of subjects from across the ideological spectrum.

This is a phenomenon that is very prevalent in the book community. It’s normal to watch a Booktube video or read a blog post that contains trigger warnings before going into a review.

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My own opinion is that alerting consumers to potentially upsetting topics can be beneficial in some regards, but that requiring trigger warnings is damn near impossible and not the responsibility of the author or content creator. It’s impossible to know what things will trigger readers, as there are an endless amount of triggers out there. From the same NCAC report I mentioned earlier,

…many noted that “it is impossible to know what will trigger students.” There are reported complaints about spiders,   “images of childbirth,” suicide in a ballet, indigenous artifacts, images of dead bodies, “fatphobia,” bloody scenes in a horror film class, and more. One respondent observed, “I’m not sure you can teach American literature without issuing a blanket trigger warning for the entire semester.”

I feel as though in some (some, not all) cases people might be requesting trigger warnings in order to not have to deal with a difficult topic, like suicide, rape, or an eating disorder. These are real topics, however, that are important to examine in literature and other mediums. As many opponents to trigger warnings have said, the real world doesn’t contain trigger warnings, and sometimes people need to learn how to deal with these topics in a healthy way.

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Trauma and post-traumatic stress are very, very real things. I’m not trying to be insensitive to people who have anxiety – I have anxiety and issues with depression myself, and there are definitely topics I come across while reading that can elevate my level of stress, and yes, in a few cases some of these topics have caused me to have a panic attack. However, I’m actually quite thankful for these situations, as they force me to confront and deal with these topics, rather choose to avoid them.

There’s a 2014 article from The New Yorker by Jay Caspian Kang that brings about another interesting point about the effect trigger warnings might have on literature:

…what harm could a swarm of trigger warnings—each one reducing a work of literature to its ugliest plot points—inflict on the literary canon? What would “Trigger Warning: This novel contains racism” do to a reading of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”? What would “Trigger Warning: Rape, racism, and sexual assault” do to a reading of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”?

There have also been some studies done to gauge the effectiveness of trigger warnings. One that particularly intrigued me was written in Psychology Today:

A recently published Harvard study tackled these questions. Researchers Benjamin Bullet, Peyton Jones, and Richard McNally had participants read passages from literary texts like Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment. But before reading these passages, half of the participants received a warning that read: “TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma.”

The researchers found that being exposed to trigger warnings caused participants to rate both themselves and others as more vulnerable to developing PTSD. Trigger warnings led to no self-reported differences in anxiety between the two groups overall, but for participants who already held the belief that “words cause harm,” trigger warnings led to an increase in anxiety.

There is evidence that trigger warnings can be harmful rather than helpful, and as I said before, it’s impossible to have a trigger warning in place for every potential trigger out there. I feel that it’s partially the responsibility of the reader to know what types of books he or she may need to avoid. If you’re an author or content creator and you support trigger warnings, then go for it. However, I am of the opinion that these warnings might make people less willing to deal with issues that they should confront for the benefit of their own mental health.

This article was not written with the intent of creating controversy or attacking anyone; I simply wanted to share my own thoughts on this topic. If this discussion has upset you, feel free to reply in the comments section so that we can discuss it further.



What are your own opinions on trigger warnings? Should they be included on the covers of books or before movies or television shows? Let’s have a discussion in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings: What are they, and do we need them?

  1. This is a great post, Penny. You have framed the argument really well. I have been pondering trigger warnings ever since some were ascribed to The Balance of Heaven and Earth, which I see as just a gentle Chinese fairy tale! I have always considered literature not only a safe place to learn about the darkness in the world but also a place where we can get the tools we need with which to deal with that darkness. I am no expert on anxiety, but I do wonder if offering trigger warnings to readers (who are usually the most imaginative of people) is necessarily the way to go – and could be, in the long run (for those who suffer acute anxiety) self-defeating. For some reason, that which we would wish to avoid always seems to appear right in front of us….

    Liked by 2 people

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