The Importance of Trigger Warnings

I’ve been talking with a lot of writers lately. Most of them have questions about what requires a trigger warning and what doesn’t. Some have even asked what they even are. Some even question their necessity. 

We all are close-minded. Hear me out before those angry fingers start blasting off in my comments — let me finish. Regardless of how open-minded, empathetic, and compassionate you are, you cannot put yourself in everyone’s shoes. You only have your life experience to go off. You might find something completely innocuous that someone else finds incredibly hurtful/debilitating. Dare I say, triggering. Not understanding doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you an insensitive person, either. It just means that you haven’t had the same life experiences. You, simply put, do not have the tools or the language to understand how it could be harmful to someone else. 

So let’s get started. 

What does “being triggered” even mean?

In mental health terms, a trigger refers to something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress. A trigger affects your ability to remain present in the moment. It may bring up specific thought patterns or influence your behavior.

healthline.com

This means that when someone is triggered, their mental health is directly being impacted/affected by something. Perhaps it’s something that was said, seen, read, etc. This can be directly linked to memories or old trauma sensations. Trauma responses are not always mental, either. For some, it can even manifest physically.

Most of us don’t want to hurt someone else. Especially without meaning to. It’s scary, right? Especially since people can get really aggressive and really mean when they find something problematic.

Are you justified in feeling hurt by their words and actions? Yes. Are they justified in how they responded? Also yes. Why? Because a trauma response is not rational. People are, quite literally, not themselves when they are having a trauma response. You can read a little more about it: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

https://www.oxfordclinicalpsych.com/view/10.1093/med:psych/9780199334513.001.0001/med-9780199334513-appendix-9

But why is it your problem?

Aren’t the people with the triggers responsible for their own triggers?

Yep. 500%.

Then, why am I writing a blog about the importance of including trigger warnings?

People with triggers can’t really make informed decisions about them if they aren’t aware that they’re present. Just like you can’t be held responsible for getting sprayed by a skunk for stumbling across one in the middle of the night. You didn’t know it was there, but, inevitably, you still got sprayed. 

If someone told you, “don’t go over there, there is an agitated stink cat,” you likely would take another route, right? Just the same as someone who has triggers. They don’t want to be triggered or uncomfortable. No more than you want to.

So, again, what is the purpose of a trigger warning?

A trigger warning exists to properly inform the audience (your readers) about the content that lays within the pages. This allows them to make an informed decision about whether they want to read or not.

For example, I have triggers surrounding sexual assault. If I see a trigger warning on the book, that directly impacts whether I will read/put the book down. There are some instances where I will elect to continue reading. But that’s when I know I’m at a good place mentally to read. I make the decision. If I don’t know that there is a/multiple scene(s) where SA happens and I happen to stumble upon that content, that’s a completely different scenario. An unnecessarily painful one.

How am I supposed to know what requires a trigger warning?

There are plenty of lists out there you can consult. A cursory google pulled up this list by booktriggerwarnings.com: https://booktriggerwarnings.com/index.php?title=Book_Trigger_Warnings:List_of_Trigger_Warnings

I also like to encourage readers to think critically about the content they put out into the world. The question I always ask is: “Would you be comfortable with the people who have survived these situations reading this story?/How you wrote about it?” These are the triggers that should be listed. Remember. They’re not for you, they’re for your readers.

What do I do? I was contacted by a reader about a trigger I didn’t know existed!

Message them back and repeat after me:

“Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out to me and tell me about my oversight. I am so very sorry that my work was triggering. I had no intention of ever hurting you, or anyone else for that matter. I know that it doesn’t take away from the pain you felt, but I am genuinely sorry that was your experience in reading my work. I never want to make anyone feel unsafe. I will amend my book description to include a proper trigger warning(s) so that this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Remember, it’s not personal. It’s not an attack against you. There will never be a world in which you can imagine everything that all of your readers have gone through. Just be open to their words, accept their needs, and keep them in mind in the future! The people reaching out to you aren’t trying to scold you. What they want is to educate you, and protect themselves/others who have similar triggers so that someone else doesn’t come away feeling hurt/triggered.

In Conclusion

Trigger warnings are not your enemy. They are not scary. They are not a nuisance. They aren’t just another frustrating step in writing your book. They are a direct way to show genuine compassion and respect for your readership. It says that you care enough about them, their well-being, and their stories to warn them about the skunk they might step on. 

Your audience will respect you for thinking of them. It will allow them to take control of their triggers and regulate what they do and do not want to read. It will also prevent people from reading your work who will not enjoy it. Overall, it’s just a bit of extra time to save yourself and others from a world of hurt. So, please, take the five minutes to google a list of triggers and include the pertinent ones in your book description. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


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