From One Survivor to Another

November 2, 2011

A brief guide to trigger warnings

[trigger warning: brief mention of racism and lynching, discussion of triggers, ableism, gaslighting]

(Don’t know what a trigger is? CTRL + F and skip to section 3. Wondering why people use trigger warnings? Skip to section 4.)

I saw a post earlier tonight in which a person said something like, “I should listen to trigger warnings instead of ignoring them”. This really spoke to me— sometimes I will see trigger warnings, and I just mindlessly brush them off and read on anyway. This is obviously not the greatest way to approach things, and it usually means that I end up feeling pretty unsafe and messed up. So I wanted to write a guide on trigger warnings— how people can use them, why they should be used, and so on.

ETA 11/4/2011: Added a brief addendum to the last section on what to do if you are unsure about whether or not something is triggering.

ETA 11/15/2011: Added link to Spoon Theory article, made breaks between sections more clear.

ETA: 12/11/2011: Section on what to do if you are triggered.

ETA: 12/13/2011: Finished section on what to do if you are triggered. Numbered sections. Added section on what a trigger is (section 3).



1. Things to ask yourself when you encounter a trigger warning
2. What you should do if you are triggered
3. What is a trigger?
4. Why should people use trigger warnings?
5. What about spoilers or revealing other key plot points?
6. If you are posting triggering material (or any material), please consider the following


1. Things to ask yourself when you encounter a trigger warning:

  • Do I have a personal investment in this category or issue? This is not the same as asking, “do i belong to this group?”. Although it is more likely that you will be harmed by something if you are a part of that same group, it is still possible to be hurt. An Asian American, for example, can be triggered by racism against Black people if that racism presents itself in a form similar to what they have personally experienced.
  • How much does this wound still hurt? Practice self-measurement. If this is something that is still fairly new, it might be good to leave it alone for awhile.
  • Do I have the spoons for this right now?  Are there things that I need to get done later today? Will I need to be around other people who fit into the offending group? Do I have the emotional and physical patience for this? Remember that you may not have a limitless reserve of energy.
  • If this does trigger me, what are the possible ways in which I might react? Would any of those reactions be harmful or dangerous? Would my reaction throw me off from my current path? Please don’t forget to consider this! You owe it to yourself.
  • If this does trigger me, what strategies do I have for bouncing back?  Do I have someone I can talk to after? A favorite activity or hobby? Is there a safe space I can go to? Practice self love; make sure you have something positive to help you recover.
  • Do I have the time and the space to deal with these things right now? If not, then it might be best to pass on this. Remember that after you finish reading this, you’ll still have to go to class or work.
  • Am I making this into a challenge? Sometimes I like to think that I am strong and brave and ready to push forward. While this kind of gusto is good in some situations, it can also be very self-defeating. Remember that no one is making you read this material except for you. If you feel as if someone else or that some internalized part of you is, then it might be good to take a step back. 
  • Am I ready for this? It’s okay to admit that you’re not. Some things take a lot of time and struggle before they stop hurting, or that hurt is made bearable— don’t force yourself into doing something you don’t want to.


2. What you should do if you are triggered:

  • Immediately leave the situation. You do not owe explanations, excuses, or apologies to anyone for being triggered and needing to leave. If it is a socially awkward situation, you could just say that you feel sick. Or you could look at your phone and say you have an emergency, etc. It’s not lying or being dishonest, because being triggered really is an emergency, and sometimes it requires immediate attention.
  • If you need to stretch the truth, that’s okay too. Your personal safety and survival are more important. 
  • If you are triggered by something on the internet, close out of the window and leave it alone. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get drawn into something and want to react. You can always come back to it later. Remember that your safety comes first.
  • Evaluate the seriousness of the trigger. On a scale of 0-100, with 100 being in the same traumatic situation again, where do your feelings fall? If you can, find some words to describe how you are currently feeling. Try to establish some perspective.
  • Ask yourself how you will react to this now, in the near future, and in the distant future. Recognize if this trigger will greatly affect you just for a few minutes, for an hour, for the rest of the day, or have lasting effects in the long-term. Sometimes we don’t react to triggers until much later, often without even realizing it. The more conscious you are of these thoughts, the better you can prepare yourself for it.
  • Identify what would make you feel safer. Ask yourself: “what do I need to feel safer?” Is it changing places? Being with a certain person? Distance from others? Are there certain activities, colors, foods, sounds that help you feel better? Some people like to keep a “toolbox” of such things ready beforehand.
  • Free up some time and find a place which makes you feel safe and calm— somewhere quiet and alone, hopefully only a few minutes away. It’s always good to identify places like this wherever you go— have a safe place for work, for school, etc. 
  • Gently remind yourself that you are okay. Remember that how you feel right now is not how you felt a moment ago— with time, this feeling will pass.


3. What is a trigger?

[trigger warning: this section describes the effects of triggers.]

  • A trigger, or being triggered, is something that many people who have survived various traumas experience. It’s a set of emotions and often physical reactions that are in some way tied to a past trauma. These connections do not always have to be obvious; many people are triggered by something but do not know why (yet, or ever).
  • Triggers can present themselves in many different ways. Responses can range from physical illness (panic attacks, adrenaline, sweating, heart palpitations, shaking, vomiting, aches/pains, headaches) to emotional/mental responses (profound sadness, fear, or anger; feeling as if one is in mortal danger or about to die, whole or partial flashbacks, sensory flashbacks). For many people, being triggered is like being back in that same traumatic situation. Some people may even experience sensory flashbacks or hallucinations in which they recall certain sounds, smells, or images involuntarily. Other times, it is a pervasive feeling which can inhibit everyday function and well-being.
  • The severity of a trigger can vary. Sometimes people can be triggered and just feel kind of sick or scared, and not experience all of the other serious things as described above. Other times, it really is a serious issue of personal safety and well-being. The way a person responds to a trigger can also change each time— how a person feels that day and how emotionally strong they are in the moment can significantly affect their response. A person might have a panic attack in X situation one day, but be able to brush it off with only a little fear the next. Some triggers are always serious, while some are usually minor (still unpleasant) inconveniences.
  • A person can be triggered in the present, but not have any reaction until much later (a delayed response). For example, I was once triggered because I saw someone who had once hurt me, but I didn’t react until two days later— at the time, I was in the middle of a choir concert and I couldn’t react because I had to perform. It bothered me in the moment, but I (subconsciously) buried it until later, when I was safe and able to react.
  • Because everyone’s experience with trauma varies, many triggers are unique to the person. Some of these are impossible to really forewarn or know of (such as my trigger of spiders) because they are so specific, but there are general triggers, such as a discussion about sexual abuse, which can definitely be identified as potentially triggering.
  • A trigger can be: a photo, a film, a blog post, a texture or feeling, a tone of speech, a certain situation, a person, a behavior, a word or a slur, a location/place, a book, a food, a smell, a sound, etc.
  • Some potentially triggering subjects include: sexual abuse, rape, molestation, incest, PTSD, suicide, depression, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harm, war, death, murder, violence, sexism, racism, privilege denial, miscarriage, ableism, heterosexism, and cissexism.


4. Why should people use trigger warnings?

(the following section has some examples of people being butts. If you don’t want to listen to ableist things, please skip down to the last two points, or to the next section.)

  • "I can handle this material, so they should be able to as well." Only you are you. No one else is exactly the same, so please don’t assume that they are. This is a very privileged, ableist, and self-centered thing to say.
  • "Aren’t trigger warnings infantilizing?" No. Every person is at a different stage of healing and together-ness. For some individuals, the situation may have happened to them recently, or the wound is still fresh, and being exposed to this could be harmful or even life-threatening. For others, it could be something that they have been working on for years, but it is still difficult to deal with.
  • "People need to stop dwelling on things and just get over it." This is not for anyone to decide except for the person who was actually hurt. Some people could be seriously set back in their progress or even retraumatized by unwilling exposure to certain topics. Trigger warnings allow people to move at their own pace— something which can only be decided by them, and no one else. 
  • "I think that trigger warnings look awkward/No one uses these in real life or in other internet spaces." The only reason trigger warnings feel “weird” or “strange” is because they are not used as much as they should be. If people did, we’d be used to trigger warnings and would just see them as a normal part of everyday life and discussion. If you think that petty aesthetics are more important than real human beings with feelings, then you need to ask yourself, “why does this make me feel so insecure and threatened?”
  • Trigger warnings are as much about giving people a choice as they are about preparing them for the content.  If a person knows that X issue will come up, then they can mentally prepare for it beforehand. Some people have specific strategies for this, while others have subconscious barriers that they put up to distance and protect themselves. If they are suddenly exposed without warning, then they don’t have the opportunity to do this, and it could hurt them much more than if they had prepared. 
  • Trigger warnings force you to check your own privilege. Adding trigger warnings is an act of empathy that forces us to consider another person’s experience of the world. It makes us confront the fact that our lives are very different from the lives of others. This is especially true when someone calls you out for overlooking or forgetting to include trigger warnings for certain issues.


5. What about spoilers or revealing other key plot points?

Because triggers are so serious, and because being triggered can result in real harm to people, it is far better to ruin the surprise in a story/film/tv show than to keep it a secret. Anyone who has dealt with triggers can tell you that it is not in any way fun to be surprised by something triggering, no matter how clever or artistic it is. We are talking about people here, not petty aesthetics. Again, allowing people the minimum decency of being prepared (or having the chance to prepare) for dangerous content is very important. The movie might end at the credits, but that person’s personal trauma continues long after the film is over.


6. If you are posting triggering material (or any material), please consider the following:

  • Is my trigger warning at the very beginning of the post? This can include the title as well. It’s not okay to simply drop the warning right before the triggering material happens— by then, your reader may have an investment in the text, and they could be less likely to step away, even though the material may be harmful.
  • Is my trigger warning set off in an obvious manner? Most people use () or [], and sometimes boldface or all caps. If possible, It should also be set off on its own line apart from the rest of the text.
  • Is the trigger warning specific and detailed? Simply saying “racism” may not be enough; instead, you could say, “racism— lynching” or “racism— slurs against X group”.  The more information you give, the better. This does not, however, mean that your triggers should be triggering themselves; use phrases like “graphic description”, “first person account”, “racial slur”, etc, rather than the actual language. If you feel like you can put a value on how extreme or benign the trigger is, then that should also be included.
  • Have I covered every possible issue in this post? Please double check to make sure, even if it’s just for a second.
  • Remember that if someone calls you out, it’s not a personal attack. We all come from different positions of power and privilege. It’s not your fault— that’s just the way the world is. Having someone tell you that your trigger warning is incomplete is not in any way meant to be an insult; it just means that you may have taken a different view of the world for granted. No one is perfect, and that’s okay.
  • When in doubt, use a trigger warning. It is better to be safe than not safe. If the subject is not something that you know personally, and it bothers you even a little, try to imagine how it must be for others who have personally dealt with it— it is probably much worse. Again, being specific with the extent and (possible) severity of things is always useful.
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