Why You Can't Rely on Trigger Warnings


Therapy clients will sometimes ask my thoughts about trigger warnings, and my advice usually surprises them. Writers or directors will often include a warning that says “Trigger Warning,” “TW” or a specific note to signal potentially triggering content at the start of articles, movies and other media. While trigger warnings are a very well-intentioned way of signaling to readers or viewers to proceed with caution with potentially upsetting content, trigger warnings may actually exacerbate trauma symptoms for survivors and I believe they should not be relied upon.

To understand why this is, it is first important to understand how trauma affects us. A traumatic event will trigger the body’s natural fight or flight response in the moment of a stressful event, often leaving one feeling on edge for long after the event has passed. Trauma can change the way we view ourselves, others and the world at large; making it difficult to distinguish past threat from present safety. Survivors may experience traumatic memories when they least expect it, which can feel overwhelming, distressing and depressing.

For some it will be explicit content describing a specific kind of trauma that will conger uninvited memories. Oftentimes though, trauma triggers are more subtle. Maybe it is the weather that reminds you of that particular day, the smell of an environment or the color of someone’s shirt. While trauma is a very diverse experience that can lead to very individualized triggers for each person, trigger warnings are very general. Many of my clients tell me they tense up at simply hearing the word “trigger,” before they even know why the warning is there. Trigger warnings can unintentionally trigger an individual’s trauma response even if the trigger warning is intended for a completely different kind of trauma.

Trauma often leads to avoidance of any reminders of the traumatic event, in an effort to protect oneself from re-experiencing past trauma. In reality though, avoidance doesn’t work. The more we avoid trauma reminders, the fewer opportunities we have to confront reminders and overcome them. By avoiding reminders of the trauma, you confirm your fear that the world is a scary place because you never have the opportunity to disprove it. In contrast, if you confront reminders of past trauma you give yourself the chance to realize you are strong enough to tolerate these reminders. Practicing good self-care will be an integral part of accomplishing this.

Trigger warnings can give a false sense of security that if we avoid certain content, then a survivor will feel safe. Some may argue that trigger warnings are not actually intended to make an individual avoid certain content, but to actually prepare themselves and practice self-care in the process. This is great in theory, but in practice there is no guarantee that you will find trigger warnings when you need them. It is better to be prepared for triggering content, with or without trigger warnings.

Here’s how to take care of yourself with or without trigger warnings.

1. Have a self-care plan for when unexpected trauma reminders trauma hit you.

Write down a few strategies that have worked for you in the past when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. It can be helpful to keep a copy with you (say, saved on your phone or in your purse/wallet) so that you can easily remember what helps when you are too stressed to think clearly. Pick some strategies from below if you’re not sure what to do.

2. When feeling triggered, look around the space where you are and ask yourself: “Am I safe right now?”

If the answer is “no,” call 911 or do whatever you need to do to get safe. If the answer is “yes,” then remind yourself “The past is in the past. I am safe right now.” You may need to repeat this over and over again in your mind until you feel calm. Sometimes feeling unsafe can convince you that you are in danger, when you are in fact OK. Your brain can help override this feeling by reminding yourself you are safe in this very moment.

3. Use grounding techniques to regulate strong emotions under stress.

Grounding is very helpful with trauma because it helps you stay in the moment to help you separate from past trauma. Grounding exercises help you connect with your body and the five senses right now. Click here for some practice exercises.

4. Seek out a feeling of safety.

Avoid situations that will put you at risk for repeat trauma (this is the good kind of avoidance) and find spaces that make you feel secure. Safety can be found with people you trust, a comfortable environment and having a plan to keep you out of danger. Actively integrating safe spaces into your routine can help you create a generalized feeling of safety over time.

5. Control how you confront trauma reminders by being proactive about it.

Find safe spaces to talk about your trauma history so that you feel more and more comfortable discussing your traumatic past. I think of confronting one’s traumatic history the same way you might think about opening a bottle of soda. A traumatic event is like shaking up a bottle of soda as hard as you can. If you open the bottle in one big burst, you will have an uncontrollable explosion. But, if you open the bottle of soda slowly and gently, you will be able to manage the release more safely. One way or another you will need to confront your traumatic history, but when you decide how you do this, then you will have a better sense of control and confidence in doing so.

6. Confront trauma reminders slowly and gently.

There is no need to force yourself to look for triggering content. But, when reminders do come (and they will), try to take them in small doses. Take breaks, get support and take deep breaths along the way. Notice the urge to avoid trauma reminders, and know that you have control over where you direct your attention. When you cannot tolerate traumatic memories, give yourself something else pleasant to focus on.

7. Know that trauma symptoms come in waves – and yes, they will pass.

Allowing trauma symptoms to come, rather than avoiding them completely, will also help you to let them go. It may be helpful to visualize trauma symptoms like a wave. It can be helpful to take a step back and observe these feelings rise and fall while knowing that you do not have to participate in them. You are strong enough to have survived a past trauma and you can survive reminders of past trauma as well.

8. Therapy, therapy, therapy.

Yes, I’m a therapist, so I am obviously a huge fan of therapy. But, that’s why I’m in this profession: I know that it works. And the studies are there to back me up. A therapist will give you an objective perspective, teach you skills for managing trauma symptoms and offer you comfort when you feel overwhelmed and stressed.

9. Be open to finding personal strengths or meaning after a traumatic event.

This doesn’t mean you have to be grateful that a traumatic experience happened to you. Identifying your strengths and learnings from a difficult experience will help you cope though and give you more control over your life narrative.

10. Keep crisis resources on hand.

If you feel triggered and need to talk to someone right away, call RAINN’s 24/7 hotline for support and linkage to local resources: 1-800-656-HOPE. Their highly trained staff will offer confidential support in a moment of need.

Practicing self-care after a traumatic event can be challenging and sometimes overwhelming, but you deserve to feel good and safe. Being mindful that triggers may pop up where you least expect them will help you be prepared and have a plan. Know that as you confront triggering material while practicing self-care, you are learning to take back control of your own emotional well being. My wish for you is: Be safe. Be well. Be supported.

“A sorrow shared is cut in half; a joy shared is doubled.”

(Swedish proverb, source unknown)

Anna Lindberg Cedar, MPA, LCSW is an experienced Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Oakland specializing in evidence-based counseling to boost coping during times of stress and transition. Find out more: www.annacedar.com

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