Some notes on the use of ‘triggered’

There was a useful discussion on Facebook earlier this evening about how disabled folks use the word ‘triggered’, so I’m going to talk a bit here about my own usage of it, and why content warnings can improve open discourse.

Using ‘triggered’ inclusively

The use of ‘trigger’ as a psychological term emerged in relation to PTSD. As someone who has c-PTSD and dysthymia/major depressive disorder, and who is also Autistic, I also use ‘trigger’ to describe situations and stimuli that push me into meltdown or produce spiralling depressive thoughts because for me, the ways in which these things produce involuntary mental and physical reactions is very similar.

I’m a fan of using language inclusively, and I look at ‘trigger’ as something similar to ‘neurodivergent‘ — it has its origins in describing a particular disability, but can be applied helpfully to a range of mental health experiences. (This does NOT, however, mean ‘trigger’ can be used as a joke or a slur or a way of describing benign discomfort with a topic. To do so is appropriative at best and potentially a harmful form of discrimination, regardless of whether you yourself identify as disabled, mentally ill, mad, et cetera.)

How content warnings work for me

My meltdown triggers don’t generally require or benefit from content warnings, because they’re usually sensory and/or situational. My PTSD triggers are similarly usually grounded in meatspace environments and experiences so I am not usually triggered by things I read or see (though it does happen occasionally). My depressive triggers are the big ones that I struggle with in terms of involuntary exposure to content.

I also tend to mainly experience distress when situations relating to my triggers are described in detail. None of this is universal to the experiences of Autistic people, or people dealing with PTSD or depression. Some Autistic people may need content warnings. Some depressed people may be triggered by a single sentence or word. This is why it’s important to be conservative and cautious when providing content warnings. If you’re unsure if something should receive a content warning, best to err on the side of providing one.

And with that said, I am far from perfect with my use of content warnings. I don’t always anticipate when something may be triggering to someone. This is especially true when I’m experiencing bad brain fog — sometimes I may also be aware something requires a warning, but can’t think of what that warning should be, and so end up providing a warning that is too vague to be useful. And this is why I really appreciate when people reach out to let me know if something I’ve posted could use a content warning (or needs a different or more specific one).

Why content warnings make discourse better

Relatedly, because content warnings get a lot of shit from people for being perceived as ‘coddling’ or ‘immature’ or ‘policing’ I want to spend a few minutes discussing why that’s not remotely the case and why, in fact, they are a fucking awesome thing.

Content warnings ask us to take just a moment think about what we are writing and saying and sharing, and consider how it may affect others. That’s really cool, to be honest. It’s asking you to think critically about the discourse you participate in, and the ways in which you do so. It’s asking you to apply your analytical skills to the enactment of compassion. It’s asking you to create a discourse that includes the people who are typically marginalised as its objects — by explicitly acknowledging them as interested subjects and participants. If you espouse the principles of liberalism, all of this should sound REALLY FUCKING COOL.

Content warnings are NOT censorship, because they do not entail a proscription of the topics they address. They are not an attempt to curtail free speech or open discussion.
They are very literally additive. They are asking you to add to the materials of your discourse. They are also not about dislike or discomfort or political agendas* — and therefore have nothing at all to do free speech arguments.

Content warnings are a way of contributing to discourse by thinking critically and explicitly acknowledging the different ways in which people might experience and engage with discourse around a given topic. To that end, receiving a reminder to use a content warning is not a personal criticism or attempt at censorship, but rather a critical and empathetic engagement with discourse.

If we frame content warnings as a conscious exercise in building cognitive empathy, critical thinking and inclusive discourse, and suddenly they become tools for improving free thought rather than stifling it.

* That said, content warnings are also not apolitical, because literally every social interaction we participate in is implicitly political, in that it engages with systems of societal power, whether by replicating, reinforcing, or challenging them, and imbalances of power are implicated in many traumatic experiences. Thus, explicitly political topics may indeed be traumatic, and the use of warnings based on political content does not necessarily represent a specific partisan agenda.

Why ‘content warning’ is more inclusive than ‘trigger warning’

I have used the word ‘trigger’ throughout this post, but have avoided the phrase ‘trigger warning’. When discussing the accommodation of people’s triggers, I prefer to use the terms ‘content warning’ or ‘content note’.

In the Facebook discussion I mentioned, it was noted that the word ‘trigger’ can itself be a problem for people who have experienced medical trauma. I can also imagine it might be troubling for people who have experienced other forms of violence. I began avoiding it because it has become so widely used as an ableist slur that I preferred not to remind myself and others of this, or make my use of warnings a potential target for online assholes who think the word is hilarious.

So in relation to the actual issue of being triggered, ‘content warning’ can already be more inclusive language. It’s also more inclusive because it acknowledges that visual content may be actively harmful to disabled people in a variety of ways: I am thinking in particular of flashing videos, gifs and strobes, which can trigger everything from migraines to meltdowns to seizures. (Though it should be noted that as much as possible, these things should not be shared, or should at least be hidden within nested comments or behind links, because involuntary exposure to them is harder to avoid than for written material.)

This more inclusive usage also helps to explicitly shift the framing of the ‘warning’ concept from a sociopolitical issue to an accessibility one. (It has always been an accessibility issue, but language that approaches the relationship between disability and involuntary exposure to visual content more broadly may make this more apparent for neurotypicals.)