There’s been an interesting online debate today about the value of trigger warnings. As with many mental health websites, this site routinely gives trigger warnings before discussing topics such as suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, abuse and so on. I’ve never really heard much debate whether these should or shouldn’t be used. They’re just generally assumed to be A Good Thing.
Today there was an article on the New Statesman website by feminist author Rhiannon Lucy Coslett. She argues that trigger warnings have been unhelpful in her recovery from PTSD. Her argument gets a bit jumbled in places, and at times seems to have more to do with recent online debates among feminists than about trauma. But the gist of it seems to be that shielding people from triggers encourages avoidance rather than recovery.
I do not doubt that they are of enormous service to survivors with specific triggers likely to reoccur on feminist websites, but it has got to a point now where I feel women I have never met are trying to wrap me in cotton wool, and I detest that. PTSD can make you hypersensitive and hyper-aware – not qualities I see as desirable in a writer or an editor whose job is to produce words for the general population. Whether a survivor personally feels ready to stop toppling the boxes is their choice and only their choice. Some never will; the trauma is too profound to ever process. But there are some survivors who are trying to open their boxes, and a trigger warning can serve as an admonition to stay in our shells. I wanted out of mine.
There’s been a swift reply from another feminist writer, Zoe Stavri, defending the use of trigger warnings.
And it’s these people who I’m thinking about when I put trigger warnings at the top of things I have written. If I’ve helped even one person avoid pain, then I am glad. It’s a little thing for me to do, which can make the all the difference for some people.
Trigger warnings are not for yourself; they’re for others. And if Rhiannon from Vagenda prefers not to avoid things, she can use the trigger warnings to seek out content to expose herself to as part of her own personal healing.
On one level I can see what Coslett is trying to say. After all, treatments for PTSD, such as trauma-focused CBT and EMDR, do involve facing the trauma and avoiding shutting it away to cause all sorts of havoc within the walls of your psyche. One could argue that she’s putting herself through a self-directed piece of exposure therapy.
However, it should be pointed out that in trauma-focused CBT and EMDR, it’s being done in a controlled way in a supportive environment. It also – and on this Stavri makes some very important points – is being done with people who have given informed consent. It hasn’t just been left on the internet to pop up unexpectedly at unwary readers.
As an aside, I know some psychiatrists who are quite nervous about PTSD therapies, particularly when it involves talking directly about the trauma. They’re concerned about the risk of stirring up memories, and possibly doing more harm than good by doing so. Personally when I’m working with a child who’s experienced traumatic events, I tend to wait to see whether they choose to talk about the trauma, rather than initiating it myself.
I was curious to see if there’s much academic research on the value or otherwise of trigger warnings, so I did a few searches on Google Scholar. I didn’t find much, though that might be down to me not searching in a particularly systematic way rather than the research not being out there. I did find this journal article, which has the advantage of not being behind a paywall. It discusses triggers in relation to self-harm.
In a content analysis of personal [Non-Suicidal Self-Injury] websites, several individuals reported on their website that they experienced NSSI urges and even self-injured pursuant to seeing NSSI imagery or reading graphic NSSI descriptions . In another study examining users’ responses to NSSI photographs shared within an e-forum, some individuals reported that seeing NSSI images triggered them and/or would trigger others to self-injure whereas others reported that the images were not triggering . Thus, although online activities as a whole have not been proven to result in self-injury for all viewers, collectively, these findings provide preliminary support for the widespread clinical assumption that some people are triggered by graphic NSSI material.
All of which would make intuitive sense to have trigger warnings, so people can make their own decisions about what they want to look at.
I think I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on trigger warnings. In particular I’d like to hear how people tend to react when they see them. Do you tend to stop reading if you see a relevant warning? If not, have you ever ignored the warning and then wished you hadn’t? Alternatively, have you ever ignored a warning and then been glad you kept reading? Do you find them helpful in enabling you to safely browse online? Over to you guys.