There are triggers and then there are trigger warnings. They’re two different things. Here’s a look at which is which.
Triggers are things that set off your symptoms. They are usually fairly common, everyday things that don’t seem to affect others negatively, but that set off a reaction of anxiety or depression in you.
I have bipolar 2 with anxiety. As such, I have spells of depression and anxiety that hit for no discernable reason – endogenous, meaning “from the inside.” They have no specific triggers except my own brain biochemistry. I don’t know how long they’ll last, and most of the time I don’t know what will relieve them, except self-care, meds, and the passage of time.
Obviously, since these feelings have no particular triggers, writing about them usually doesn’t need a trigger warning.
With exogenous depression and anxiety – those that come from the outside – there are more often triggers. After a while a person learns what those triggers are and how to avoid them.
Two of my triggers for anxiety are sudden loud noises and loud voices, which means that I will never in my life be able to work in or even visit a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Avoiding Chuck E. Cheese is one of my coping mechanisms.
Another is gesturing to let my husband know that his voice is getting loud when he gets angry about politics, for example. Or leaving the room on the pretext of getting a cup of tea when a group of people begin arguing.
My husband knows about these triggers and also helps me in coping with them. He warns me if there is likely to be a loud noise, such as hammering or using a power tool when working on a project. When there is a sudden noise, he reassures me afterward – “It’s okay, honey. I just dropped a plate.”
If I write about my personal triggers (which, of course, I just did), there is likely no need to post a trigger warning. The reader is not actually hearing the loud, sudden noise or the quarreling voices. Even if the reader has the same triggers, he or she is merely reading about them, not hearing them in real life.
The other kind of trigger is very different. It is something that causes a person to have an acute reaction to or flashback of a trauma – rape, sexual abuse, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or attempts, etc. At their worst, reading or hearing accounts of these types of incidents can cause a person to re-experience the trauma. The account triggers a painful memory, which can easily lead to a panic attack or even a total meltdown.
The trigger warning was invented to let a person know that a particularly sensitive subject is about to be discussed and the person may want to skip reading it or wait until she or he is in a safe space before doing so. It’s a little like putting ratings on movies or TV shows so that viewers can choose the level of sex, violence, or profanity they are willing to experience.
A trigger warning is just that – a warning that difficult content is coming – provided so that a person can choose when or whether to read it. To use the earlier example, I do not need a trigger warning at the beginning of an account of a visit to Chuck E. Cheese. I do need one for an account of self-harm.
A trigger warning is not an excuse to avoid a reading assignment or class work. It is not an attempt by a “special snowflake” to sanitize the world. It is a courtesy – a signal – intended to prevent people from experiencing crippling reactions to content that produces only mild discomfort or even no reaction in others. Using a trigger warning when none is needed dilutes the value of the serious, severe kind of trigger warning. I strongly advise against using trigger warnings too freely.
(P.S. There may be triggers for hypomania and mania as well, but I’m not familiar with them. If you are, please tell us about them in the Comments section.)