The Revolution Must Be Accessible, Part 2: Trigger Warnings

The Revolution Must Be Accessible, Part 2: Trigger Warnings

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Trigger warnings will be discussed at length, including mentions of triggers such as abuse and sexual assault without details.

Trigger warnings get a lot of attention. The same people who claim to be supportive use ‘triggered’ as a joke, mocking emotional and physical pain. Others claim that adding warnings makes people too politically correct or apt to avoid things they don’t want to know.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people discuss sexual assault and terrifying ordeals without adding in warnings.

The Truth

Trigger warnings are a protection. As someone who has grown up in abuse and neglect in addition to experiencing sexual assault, I have to be careful of the media I consume. My Post Traumatic Stress is pretty active. There are many other conditions and people who can benefit from trigger warnings including sensory issues, epilepsy, depression, autistics, trauma survivors, and more. This is part of why I try to tag when there are gifs or autoplay videos in pieces I share on social media – for a wide range of people, these can be harmful and even cause a seizure.

Since I have PTSD, most of this article will refer to that experience.

For those of us who utilize and need trigger warnings, we may still consume that piece of media. It’s about us being able to make an informed choice about whether or not we are in the right space to encounter a trigger. If someone is at work, for instance, reading a story involving abuse may be very bad for them. They may be unable to engage in activities to keep themselves feeling safe or to ground themselves afterward.

The reality is that we may or may not get triggered by a piece of media. Hell, we can read the same thing on two different days and have different reactions to it. Even when we’re aware of triggers within an article or show and we choose to engage, we may still very well wind up triggered. I live-blogged one such occasion a few years ago.

What is Having a Triggering Experience Like?

It’s hard to put it into words, really.

One thing that people often forget that there are very real physiological manifestations to PTSD. This can include pain, being dizzy or light-headed, tingling, shallow breathing, sweating, increased heart rate, vomiting, muscle tension, GI upset, and more. It even changes how your brain functions and looks.

Being in a hypervigilant state means higher stress levels and more difficulty handling emotions, too. Essentially what happens is that your lizard brain – the piece we’ve had for ages that helps handle instinct – takes over. It recognizes whatever was triggering as related to your trauma and knows that it needs to act. It does this in a few ways, depending on what it senses you need.

I talked about it recently on Slate‘s Life Effects podcast (“Warning Signs”), describing a situation where I thought I saw my abusive mother behind me while driving. Please remember that this is simply my own experience. I feel my stomach drop. My heart rate and breathing both jump up; my mind begins racing, trying to determine if that person is actually my mother; my muscles tense up and my body tries to curl into a ball, regardless of where I am. Either that or I get incredibly angry and want to fight everyone and everything. Once I’m safe or removed from the situation, I usually wind up either dissociating (see below) or in bed crying.

I often have flashbacks to terrifying events, too. It’s hard to remind myself that I’m safe. I almost always need someone else to tell me I am and that I am states away from my mother. Even then, I’m on extra alert for days.

If an article mentions a triggering thing that I wasn’t ready for, many of the physiological reactions are the same. I usually become paranoid that any and every noise is something terrifying coming for me. I jump at the slightest noises.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn and Other Reactions

Depending on what you’ve been through and where you currently are, you can have any of these four reactions.

Fighting is what it sounds like – you want to fight what’s in front of you in order to protect yourself.

Flight is running away and seeking shelter elsewhere.

Freeze can be freezing up or playing dead/asleep.

Fawn is when you try to appease another person in order to limit the danger to yourself. As a child, this is what I often did to please my abusive mother.

It’s also worth noting that dissociation is a very real and valid reaction as well. This can go along with freezing or be its own reaction. People who deal with dissociation may be silent or may have full conversations and not be able to recall them later. It’s also common to experience both of these at different times – I have.

Dissociation is like spacing out combined with fatigue and brain fog. For some people, personality changes can occur, too. Sometimes, when I dissociate, I speak in a more childlike voice. It’s not uncommon for PTSDers to go back to a time they felt safer when being triggered. For me, it’s a time really before I can remember when the abuse in my childhood wasn’t as bad – or I just didn’t realize it. It’s yet another way our brains try to protect ourselves from the pain we’ve experienced.

During any of these reactions, people find it difficult to control their emotions. For some, that looks like not emotionally reacting while, for others, that looks like emotional overdrive or overreacting to smaller things.

How long does it take to recover?

That’s a really good question! It’s different for each person – and can be different each time. Sometimes I’m fine within ten minutes. Other times, it takes days. At the end of it, many of us who have additional mental and physical health issues find ourselves with increased pain, anxiety, and more.

That’s days of flashbacks about terrifying experiences, being unable to participate in events and be social, memory issues, inability to do much work, and more. On top of that, if someone’s terrifying event was sexual in any way, that interferes heavily with intimate relationships, too.

How are trigger warnings different than content warnings or content notes?

They are, essentially, the same things. However, there is mixed opinion about which phrasing is best.

People who utilize content notes often say that they aren’t sure whether or not the content might be triggering to someone, and just want to ‘note’ that this content is present in the piece. It is a value-neutral way to describe the content. Content warnings are similar. Additionally, there are people who find the words trigger or warning concerning, problematic, and even retraumatizing.

As someone who is trying to point out that trigger is not a word to be joked about, I choose to use trigger warnings. People can use whatever phrase they choose – as long as they put warnings or notes.

What sorts of things should I place warnings or notes on?

The major items you should place warnings on include:

  • Sexual assault
    • Note that this covers unwanted sexual touching up to and including rape. I use this in place of rape generally, though will often add rape if that specific word is mentioned.
    • This may be abbreviated as SA. Additionally, you may see sexual assault or rape mentioned with asterisks in place of certain letters to eliminate the trauma of those words (e.g., r*pe).
  • Abuse
    • Note whether this is physical, mental, emotional, verbal, or sexual.
  • Child abuse
    • Child sexual abuse is another term to note. This may be abbreviated as CSA.
      • Please note that many are moving towards using pedosadism instead of pedophilia. This removes the ‘loving’ ending and makes it more apparent that the actions of these people are incredibly harmful.
  • Animal abuse/cruelty
  • Food
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide
  • Death and dying
  • Murder
  • Genocide
  • War
  • Disordered eating (e.g., anorexia)
  • Hate speech
  • Ableism
  • Eugenics
  • Racism
  • Transmisia
    • Misia is a suffix suggested hate or hatred and is often used in place of phobia because – surprise! – people have real phobias not rooted in bigotry.
  • Bimisia, homomisia
    • Homomisia could also be noted as heterosexism, or the belief that all people are heterosexual.
  • Gendered language
    • I utilize this when an article endorses the gender binary, or belief that people are either men or women. This is helpful as well when articles discuss women as being the only menstruaters, for example, when people of any gender who own a vagina can have a period. This can also be noted as cissexism as articles like that imply everyone is cisgender.
  • Gifs
  • Autoplay videos
  • Victim blaming
  • Pregnancy and kids
    • This is especially important if you interact with people who struggle with infertility.
  • Miscarriage
  • Blood
  • Needles

This is not an exhaustive list. Ideally, you would ask your followers/audience for things they would like notes or warnings on. Not every person’s triggers are the same – and some are items that are considered mundane or unpredictable by others. I have a friend who is triggered by red roses, for example, and that’s not something someone would normally tag.

In-person triggers can also include smells, tastes, and more. This is not just limited to media we consume online.

Okay, but how can I write out warnings?

There seems to be an endless way to write out triggers.

You can say CW (content warning) or TW (trigger warning) or CN (content note) and list the appropriate topics mentioned above. You could also write out these words. An example would be TW: food or Trigger Warning: Food.

Additionally, you can place the topics in forward slashes like so: /food/. This is what I generally do.

You could also add this in brackets such as [food] or {food}. I tend to utilize these as well, more specifically for gifs, autoplay videos, and gendered language.

If you are writing a piece like this versus sharing one on social media, triggers should be listed at the top in italics. Ideally, you would list them in your snippet if you have the tools to edit that as well.

On Facebook, these should be listed with a series of periods on new lines afterward like this:
TW: Food
OMG I just had the best donut ever!

This helps people to avoid the text that may be triggering. If you are simply sharing an article, you can still utilize the above methods of TW/CW/CN, etc. People still see the article preview, regardless of how many periods you list.

Do I still list these when the article clearly mentions XYZ?

That’s up to you – and, ideally, you’d ask your followers about this. When things involve talks of eugenics and Naziism, for example, I err on the side of caution. I do the same with food.

That’s probably the way to go with any of these unless you hear differently from your followers/audience.

I’m a professional who gives presentations. How should I address triggers?

I always list potential triggers at the beginning of my presentations. I share which issues will actually be talked about in-depth versus simply being mentioned. I then make sure to reiterate that people are welcome to come and go throughout the presentation as they need to, whether for self-care or another reason.

How are trigger warnings an accessibility issue?

It’s health issues that require us to be mindful of the media we consume. For me and my PTSD, it’s being wary of things that mention or show abuse, neglect, and sexual assault. For people who have seizures, it’s avoiding gifs and other fast-moving media. The person recovering from an eating disorder needs to avoid mentions of food.

These are all health-related. That’s what makes this an accessibility issue.

I see people from mental health advocates to sex educators to those who claim to be intersectional refuse to use warnings – and it pisses me off. It’s frustrating to see people know how to label something NSFW (not safe for work) but refuse to take measures to protect those of us dealing with health issues.

I’ve also seen misconceptions going around that you don’t need to note triggers on your experiences – and that’s both ignorant and wrong. As someone who has been through some shit, the only time I don’t note these topics is if I’m incredibly angry or triggered and forget – in which case, I apologize and then retweet (on Twitter) the beginning of the thread with the proper warnings.

This all really bothers me. As Sam Dylan Finch puts it, it really says people don’t care about other people. It’s because they don’t know how to add warnings, don’t want to take the time to, or don’t care. They ignore their impact, stigmatize mental and physical health issues further, and don’t care to make their content accessible. People may not realize it, but this is what hostile comments or refusing to place warnings says to their audience.

It’s what it says to me. What I see is equivalent to “I like you as a person and like the work you’re doing, but couldn’t give a fuck about your mental and physical state right now.” That’s never something that anyone feels good seeing or feeling.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m tired of pretending that I don’t negatively react to these things. It’s upsetting to see people be so dismissive of the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of their friends, family, and followers.

Being accessible and compassionate to these issues are both important. Please add trigger warnings so that people like me don’t have to text our therapists at 3 in the morning – or worse.

Further reading

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