Friday, August 31, 2012

triggered by trigger warnings online? who has honestly been "triggered" online?

My theory: if you need trigger warnings, you need to stay off the internet. Diagnosed PTSD sufferers function in life without trigger warnings; they learn to recognize what might trigger them or what is triggering them, and they react accordingly.

Are there any real sufferers of PTSD who are triggered by text? If so, wouldn't the trigger warning itself be triggering?

ETA: For some context:

When “Trigger Warning” Lost All Its Meaning | The Awl

The Illusion Of Safety/The Safety Of Illusion - The


  1. Tangentially related - I have a phobia about insects, and feel anxiety when huge closeup photos of insects appear without warning in my rss feed, which happens a lot because I'm interest in science and nature blogs. I can imagine some images having a real negative effect for traumatized persons. Having said that, you are right, a text-only description of something triggering, you would think, would be something people could recognize is coming up and just stop reading it.

    1. I understand why someone might want a trigger warning on a story so they won't get partway into it and find they can't finish it.

      But how often does that really happen? I often get into stories and find I can't finish them, not because they're triggery, but because they simply aren't working for me.

      And you can usually tell what kind of story you're reading within a paragraph or two: is it humor? horror? set in a place like Vietnam during the war that might be triggery? Etc.

      As an artist, the biggest problem for me with trigger warnings for stories is they are either so vague as to be meaningless, or they give away something that shouldn't be revealed until it happens in the story.

    2. That said, I agree that warnings on links to pictures can be nice.

  2. I was running in the streets on 9/11 when the first tower fell, so it took me a long time to be able to watch movies where NY gets destroyed (which is pretty much every movie these days, go figure). When I saw something visual or read something that upset online, I simply avoided it. So I definitely understand the need to be sensitive, but it sometimes seems like egg-shell walking to me. Everything is a trigger to someone, so where do you draw the line?

    And, yes, you bring up a good point. What exactly does being triggered mean? In my opinion, it means calling to mind traumatic feelings that one would rather forget or avoid. So, I wonder if someone reads a line of text (before they realize what they are getting into) will they suddenly go into full PTSD mode and shut down? The whole "trigger warning" to me sounds more like a Manchurian Candidate kind of reaction. If people's psyches are so fragile that reading the wrong word can send them into shock, then maybe they shouldn't be on social media, where people say all sorts of stupid shit, you know?

    Just my $0.02.

  3. I doubt there's been any actual research on the subject, but I imagine it depends on what kind of reader you are. For instance, if you're a heavily visual reader, there might not be any difference between seeing a picture and reading a description that creates a picture in your mind. (I'm not a heavily visual reader myself... but then again, photographs, generally speaking, don't bother me. Moving pictures stick in my head and sometimes cause an emotional reaction. Static images really don't. I am almost certainly atypical in that reaction.)

    I suspect also that the type of people who are more likely to get triggered by text are the ones who don't realize they're having a trauma reaction and/or get caught by surprise because of something unexpected within the story. Knowing what type of story you're reading doesn't necessarily protect you these days. Dark humor and gritty realism are very much the "in" thing regardless of genre.

    Once you've already started to react to something, stopping reading isn't going to completely negate the reaction any more than not eating another bite of the peanut butter brittle is going to make your allergic reaction go away immediately.

    I doubt trigger warnings help, though. They tend to be limited to popularly "accepted" sources of trauma (I've seen trigger warnings for rape within a story, for instance, but I've never seen one for car accidents within a story), they aren't on everything so you can't rely on a lack of a trigger warning to indicate that the story is "safe", and people who don't know they've got a problem aren't going to pay any attention to them anyway.

    1. And having read the articles you linked to on Google+, I think part of what's happening is that people are trying to extend trigger warnings beyond issues of PTSD while still using the same language. They're including trigger warnings for things that might aggravate dysfunctional behavior (eating disorders, self-injury, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, etcetera), things that might be linked to common phobias (needles, slimy objects, etcetera), and things that might cause people to be annoyed or may be better avoided at work (certain political discussions, swearing, etcetera).

      Which is an interesting choice, but once they've included everything that could possibly cause distress to anyone, they won't even be able to talk about the weather without a trigger warning. Admittedly, the weather is often a scary, scary, thing...

  4. To quote myself in another context:

    I feel that a "trigger" is a small device that, when engaged, sets off a larger effect. A trigger is not a stick suitable for beating people, and ought not to be used as one.

  5. I've seen it happen. I mean, I didn't know the commenters involved and I guess you could say they were all lying and being drama queens or whatever, but it looked genuine to me. Nobody who was triggered was actually berating anyone; they had gone voluntarily to look at some of the grotesque conversations surrounding Rebecca Watson and found things even worse than they expected. They mentioned it because they felt safe in the community that had linked them to the discussion and as a way of showing how incredibly horrible some of the reactions to Watson were.

    PTSD is very individual, and so are people's reactions. I don't think this lofty reasoning about how it just couldn't happen because of this or that logical reason has anything to do with the reality.

    I also don't think that the impossibility of protecting every single person who might have a bad reaction is really a reason for just shrugging and doing nothing at all. It's a tricky thing to navigate and I can see not trying, but that's not a very good reason.


    1. I think serial has it right above: "people are trying to extend trigger warnings beyond issues of PTSD while still using the same language". I added the links that she mentioned to the post.

      I have enormous sympathy for the friend you mention, but how do you put a warning that says essentially: "warning: people behaving like people on the internet"? I would think that when you follow a link to a controversy, you should expect the local equivalents of "die in a fire!" and "die cis scum!"

      Mind you, I'm not arguing that people shouldn't be nice. I'm arguing that communities should not assume their practices are superior to all others, and they should wonder if what they perceive in other people's rhetoric is what actually underlies it.

      Sometimes I want to freely use "trigger warning: metaphors, irony, and exaggeration with rhetorical intent".

      This doesn't mean communities shouldn't set their own standards for what's expected within the community. What's interesting about your example is that she thought her friends would give her more warning.

    2. Of course, the word "trigger" was never exclusive to PTSD in the first place if you're talking about it in a medical/psychological sense. Dust may trigger asthma. Nitrates may trigger migraines. Certain types of visual information may trigger seizures. I don't think anybody would argue that we shouldn't put a warning on optical illusions for people who might be susceptible to seizures. (Well, okay, there probably are people who have argued that, but there's a fair chance they were idiots.)

      Putting a warning on writing that might cause an intense (and presumably unpleasant) emotional reaction in a reader doesn't strike me as being a completely misguided idea.

      I do have a problem with implying that all intense emotional reactions have their roots in trauma and a specific psychological disorder, though. Sending people with obsessive traits off to find the unknown "source" of their trauma while pathologizing emotion doesn't seem like a really good route to take somehow...

    3. I don't think anyone's objecting to being nice. I think they're objecting to people being assholes about the ways they expect other people to be nice. Nice people ask for niceness nicely; social justice warriors demand conformance and cite the tone argument.

      There was a Social Justice Sally meme about people who demand trigger warnings for their personal obsessions, but refuse to give warnings for images that might affect epileptics.

    4. "Nice people ask for niceness nicely; social justice warriors demand conformance and cite the tone argument."


  6. Actually, trigger warnings are a trigger for me.

    1. Want to write a song titled "I saw your trigger warning, so I cocked mine"?

    2. Yes I do. I don't know if I will, but I do.

  7. Here is something from our mutual friend Lionese, when this came up elsewhere. She gave me permission to quote it:

    "trigger" used to be "This is a thing that I react in certain ways to. It's smart for me to know this, and to plan for it where I can and clean up after myself where I need to. There are times I might want to ask other people in a particular conversation whether we can go onward
    without a particular trigger being part of the decor of our arena or one of our current gladiatorial nerf-weapons. There are times when the answer to that will be "No." That's how life goes, and if I need to take myself out of that particular fun argument, then I am going to do so in such a way that increases the likelihood people will want to have different fun arguments with me later. However, if somebody knows a certain thing is a trigger for me and they poke me with it on purpose, I reserve the right to try to rhetorically kick their ass for showing poor form, especially if they're poking me with it because their argument is weak."

  8. Visual or auditory triggers are probably the most common, but any sensual impression can act as a trigger. For example, an aunt of mine still can't stand the smell of something burning, because it causes flashbacks of WWII.

    After I was sexually harassed, I couldn't read sex scenes in books for a couple of months and those scenes were purely text.

    A few years ago, I had a pretty bad bout of depression that was inexorably linked to a certain TV show popular in fannish circles. For at least two or three years afterwards, any mention of said TV show would act as a trigger. Clips, trailers or random screenshots were the worst, but for a while merely reading the title could be enough to upset me. The most insidious triggers - because they were the most difficult to avoid - were people using stills from that show as livejournal icons. Of course, I wouldn't blame the people with those livejournal icons for triggering me - they couldn't possibly guess that would happen after all.

    I do issue warnings about things which commonly upset people. However, the variety of triggers is so wide that it's not possible to warn for every single one, especially since many triggers are highly individual. And as with allergies, certain triggers are privileged. For example, food packages contain all sorts of warnings about gluten, lactose, nuts, seafood, etc..., because all are common allergy triggers. But because I have an uncommon food allergy trigger, I am required to check small print ingredient lists to make sure I don't eat something that makes me sick. And by the way, for a while merely reading the name of the offending ingredient made me sick and I still cannot look at food obviously containing a lot of the problematic ingredient without retching.

    Any way, I believe that in the end it's every person's own responsibility of trying to avoid whatever triggers them as far as possible, though it is nice to make it easier for those with common triggers and to think before recommending something.

    Though sometimes the people who complain the loudest about being (understandably) upset by e.g. stereotyped portrayals of certain races and ethnicities don't consider at all whether their recommendations might upset others. I'm German and I don't want to see people of my nationality portrayed only as evil and grossly stupid Nazis. I imagine Russians aren't keen on the sort of stereotyped evil Russian character that should have died out with the Cold War. And I imagine that many portrayals of Southerners or indeed anyone from the so-called "flyover states" as stupid rednecks are grossly offensive to anyone who is actually from the South. Hell, they offend me and I only lived there for a year.

    1. You have pointed to one of the greatest flaws of trigger lists: humans are unique. No trigger list will cover everyone.

      With food, I'm a big fan of labeling ingredients because it lets each person look for what concerns them. With art, it's so much trickier. A trigger warning for rape, for example, could indicate that there's an allusion to rape in the text, or that a rape happens in the story but isn't shown, or that a rape is presented explicitly in an attempt to show how awful rape is, or that a rape is handled as an erotic fantasy that the writer would never expect anyone to consider a justification of rape, or that a rape occurs that was written by someone who's just creepy.

      Well, if I seemed to be opposed to anyone giving subject warnings, I overstated my case.

      Hmm. I think a lot of my objection is the casual use of "trigger". There should be a strong distinction between "This kind of thing may seem icky" and "This kind of thing is likely to have harsh consequences for sufferers of PTSD."