Trigger Warnings 101: a beginner’s guide

[TW: this entire article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including intergenerational trauma, sexual assault, and mental health.

Literally every kind of trauma category I could think of with brain fog at 8 pm on a Friday is at least casually mentioned. I may have missed a few.

Also note that this warning applies to any in-line link from this article.]

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brain by Abhijit Bhaduri is licensed under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) [image caption: vivid artwork of a brain inside a human head on a red background]

I’m very glad that the zeitgeist has finally decided to deliver some consequences to abusive people, but it’s been a rough month or so on the internet if you’re a survivor. I get that people are trying to be supportive, and I’m glad we’re finally talking about this. Welcome to realizing sexual assault is a widespread problem, I guess? Alternatively, welcome to finally be able to name some of these things out loud.

Unfortunately, it’s made it really hard to just be online as a survivor because it has basically become a landmine of trauma triggers. Even more than usual, which I didn’t think was possible after October of 2016’s month of non-stop news coverage playing the clip from the Access Hollywood tape on repeat literally everywhere I went.

So I am here with some news: trigger warnings are good, actually, and they’re good for all kinds of trauma. Please for the love of all that is holy — and also my ability to sleep without grinding my teeth to dust — use them more often.

Basically, a trigger warning is a consent button for content. It puts choice back in the hands of survivors, and lets us decide when and how to engage with traumatic content.

To mix my metaphors even further, it’s a few lines of text that says, “Here be dragons.” Then you, the intrepid internet explorer, can decide: Are you prepared? Did you remember to heal your party before proceeding? Did you repair your armor? Perhaps you were not looking for dragons, but an inn.

I am a survivor who has watched The Fall, Jessica Jones, and both seasons of Top of the Lake. (For those not in the know, each of those shows deals extensively with sexual assault, emotional abuse and rape culture.) I was able to engage with that content because I had adequate trigger warnings.

On the other hand, I stopped watching Marvel’s Runaways in the first ten minutes on an evening when I wanted something light and fun and full of cute costimes. Why did I nope away so quickly? I was greeted with a “group of men follow a teen down an alleyway in a way that made my gut clench.”

Trigger warnings are good, for all kinds of trauma: not just sexual assault.

Wait what, all kinds of trauma?

Yes, really.

Intergenerational trauma is a phrase for a kind of trauma that is passed down both through collective memory and through epigenetic changes to traumatic events.

Intergenerational truama is present in the descendants of Holocaust survivors and in First Nations communities and among the descendants of enslaved Black people.

Which is one of the many reasons why well meaning white activists (myself included) need to stop sharing images and videos of police violence without a trigger warning.

I get that there are things that are very individual, and you cannot be expected to warn for some random weird trigger. Believe me, I do, and I wish that I did not have to experience these random weird triggers.

One of my fun trauma discoveries was finding out that certain songs I listened to when I was very depressed are basically mental health triggers now. I’m not going to insist other people not listen to those songs, or that they have a warning played on the radio beforehand. That would be ridiculous, because I can usually remove myself from a store if the song comes on, change the radio station, or stuff earbuds in my ears.

Yet honestly, if you really study trauma, it’s everywhere. I think we’ve all heard the statistics from RAINN about how 1 in 6 women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape. Among Indigenous women, that statistic is 1 in 3. Then add the ongoing intergenerational trauma and violence, as well as being continually erased in the media and history books and from conversations about indigenous issues.

The violence and trauma are intersectional; our trigger warnings need to be as well.

I tried to find some lists of common trigger warnings, but it seems this cranky internet grandma is more progressive or perhaps more cautious than other trigger warning list makers. My list may also not work for everyone. Surprise, life is complicated.

List is organized first by how the trigger warning is often written in internet shorthand, followed by a broader explanation of what/when/why that trigger is used.

This is by no means a standardized or perfect system, and merely offered as a jumping off point. May you develop a better system! (No, really. Please, be my guest, and share it with the world. Just as long as that system isn’t “no trigger warnings”, because that’s not actually…good. There is no two sides to this debate, #sorrynotsorry.)

  • [TW: MH, MI] mental health, mental illness
  • [TW: food] food (allergies, eating disorder, poverty, lack of food, etc)
  • [TW: ED] basic trigger warning for eating disorders, may be used in cases where food is mentioned a lot as well as disordered eating, internalized body shaming, etc.
  • [TW: racism, systemic racism] systemic racism (see section on intergenerational trauma, above)
  • [TW: police brutality] what it says on the tin.
  • [TW: ableism, systemic ableism] for discussing ableism. Some activists also tag for eugenics.
  • [TW: violent imagery] violent imagery
  • [TW: flashing images] really good for people who get seizures and/or migraines, because ow.
  • [TW: SA, r*pe] sexual assault, rape. Sometimes people use abbreviations or a wildcard key so survivors can avoid certain words, which in themselves can be triggering.
  • [TW: SI, mention of su*c*de, graphic description of suic*de] Similarly, “SI” often stands for “suicidal ideation” and wildcards can be used within the word itself.
  • [TW: SH, mention of self h*rm, graphic description of self h*rm] There are layers of how you can tag something as a trigger. Maybe someone only alludes once to self harm, but it could be very triggering for someone in crisis. Maybe it’s a very graphic description. Providing extra context is helpful, but ultimately some warning is better than none.
  • [TW: fatmisia, anti-fat bigotry] This is the trigger warning I didn’t get for Jessica Jones, and was lucky to get from another fat activist regarding Yuri on Ice. Yes, seriously, it matters when a piece makes a lot of fat jokes that punch down.
  • [TW: sexism] what it says on the tin.
  • [lewd, NSFW] This is generally a warning for sexually explicit imagery/writing, or for sexually explicit imagery that is “not safe for work”
  • [TW: transmisia, anti-trans bigotry] What it says on the tin.
  • [TW: enby erasure, gender essentialism] I’m still looking for a good way to express this one, but it’s important to me as a non-binary person. Basically, that thing where people act like non-binary people don’t exist while simultaneously discussing gender a lot. It’s icky.
  • [TW: Islamophomisia, anti-Muslim bigotry] for content that discusses hatred of Muslims.
  • [TW: antisemitism] for content that discusses hatred of Jewish people.
  • [TW: Holocaust, N*zis, Holocaust denial] what it says on the tin. I really try hard to include content warnings for these kinds of posts.
  • [TW: white supremacy, Kl*n] what it says on the tin. Another content warning I definitely try to include.
  • [TW: mass shooting, gun violence] what it says on the tin. I think particularly when these events are going on — and happening with such frequency — it’s important to let people choose how to engage.
  • [TW: war] Helpful for both survivors of imperialistic wars and for supporting returning troops.
  • [TW: US pol] Honestly I’ve only seen this on Mastodon, but it’s a really helpful way of mentioning that you’re talking about the current nightmare that is US politics. (Alternate versions: UK pol, AU pol, etc.)

That’s it, really. You don’t need to make a long post about how WARNING, TALKING ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT, SURVIVORS SHOULD NOT LOOK. Actually really, definitely don’t do that, because it’s patronizing to assume that we can’t choose for ourselves. Remember, trigger warnings are a consent button or a “here be dragons” sign. Not a sign that says “Adventurers go home, you are obviously too broken to fight dragons ever again.”

Maybe this seems like a long list, but here’s how I simplify it in my head:

  • Does this content include something that is potentially a mental health or sexual assault trigger, or include targeted harassment towards a marginalized group? (If no, just hit “post!”)
  • If yes, is it a brief mention/allusion or is it the main point of what I’m sharing? Is it a bias about race or gender or religion the author unconsciously slipped in while writing a good thing about trauma? Is a traumatic event described in graphic detail?
  • If the main point of what I’m sharing is definitely something traumatic, I might share [TW: r*pe, detailed] or [TW: racism, imagery, graphic].
  • If some unconscious bias just slipped in or it’s only a minor allusion, I might share something like [TW: NSFW, allusion] or [TW: sexism, allusion].

Honestly, sometimes I write [TW: I don’t even know what to warn for, it’s full of feels, but also very good content.] This is not a very good warning at all (why is it full of feels? I’m not sure! I’m still processsing the feels!). It is, at the very least, some kind of warning.

My feminist praxis is an ongoing process of learning to do better.

It’s not a perfect system, and it does require a few extra seconds of thinking. But we all hopefully have 280 characters on Twitter now, and I think it’s clear a lot of people are dealing with trauma. So please, if you really want to support surivors, maybe forget whatever thinkpiece told you trigger warnings were the enemy of free speech and just see what it’s like to just put a tiny warning note up.

Once you start using them, trigger warnings become more automatic. They just shift more of the labor of coping with the systemic abuse prevalent in our society from survivors of that abuse onto the rest of society. That is why certain people get so fussy about them, and also why they are an important.

Written by

intersectional feminist & disability rights advocate. (she/her or they/them). non-binary / queer / disabled / neurodivergent. writes words, which are hard.

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