Content note: This article discusses topics such as physical abuse and sexual assault.
Has a scent or song ever rekindled a beloved memory? Perhaps the rustle of grass suddenly brings you back to a childhood game of hide-and-seek, laying under the patio with plants crackling in your ear. Maybe inhaling a bag of chocolate chips reminds you of the glorious cookies your roommate baked for you in college when you were…well, under the influence. Many of us have smelled, heard, seen, or felt something that sparked a memory we didn’t even know we had. We briefly admire the intricacies of human memory in these moments and wonder how such connections can reemerge without any warning.
Just like sensations can provoke good memories, they can also bring back negative ones, including traumatic experiences. For those with posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, these memories extend beyond brief mental imagery and into vivid flashbacks that stimulate the fight-or-flight response and force survivors to involuntarily relive the event.
As an accommodation, trigger warnings were developed as a well-intentioned way to prepare survivors to participate in university and other discussion environments where they might encounter triggering materials. Their adoption acknowledged the intrusive nature of trauma and sought to provide the opportunity to prevent episodes that would interfere substantially with the studies and everyday life of survivors.
Despite their sympathetic origins, trigger warnings can be extraordinarily divisive. As a grassroots endeavor, online circles and advocate groups popularized them before a scientific conclusion on their effectiveness. And so far, the little data we have suggests that trigger warnings on their own probably do little for anyone—including people with traumatic histories. Still, supporters posit that trigger warnings are crucial for avoiding disruptive, distressing episodes of retraumatization, while opponents argue trigger warnings are catastrophic to healing and freedom of thought. Many of us, though, remain undecided on their use. Even among the student population that has driven its widespread adoption, support appears far more mixed than popularly claimed. Many students feel that although trigger warnings don’t help them, they may help someone else.
The problem with trigger warnings comes from the subjectivity—and often innocuous nature—of triggers themselves. While the general topic of sexual assault can trigger some survivors, it’s an incomplete perspective of what triggers are. Instead, many find that specific sensations or places bring them back to the assault. Perhaps a style of door that was present in the room of the assault brings the survivor back to the traumatic event. Or a scent similar to the perpetrator’s cologne or perfume. Or the feeling of long hair brushing against the survivor’s arm. Maybe it’s a song that was playing faintly in another room. Sometimes they don’t know what caused the episode at all. That’s the insidious thing about PTSD: the memories of the trauma can intrude on the most benign, everyday aspects of life. It makes safe things unsafe.
While studies have demonstrated little effect from trigger warnings themselves, some worry that emphasizing such warnings may detract from scientifically backed efforts to help trauma survivors. It may also reinforce false notions that traumatized people are permanently damaged or helpless and reduce agency in individuals who have experienced trauma. One study suggests that trigger warnings could cause sufferers to view their trauma as “more central to their life narrative,” which worsens outcomes. It concluded with the point that “using unvetted practices is irresponsible to victims of trauma.”
Media depictions rarely help. They tend to center on veterans returning from war, who suffer disproportionate rates of PTSD compared to the general population. Socially, our overall predisposition toward veterans and service members is benevolent. Yet our stories about their PTSD struggles frequently incorporate two stereotypes at the expense of nuance: that of the “superheroic” vigilante, like older versions of The Punisher, or the unstable “ticking time bomb,” such as Owen Hunt from Grey’s Anatomy (who physically injures his partner because of what the show frames as a PTSD episode).
Additionally, we tend to depict trauma as event-based, but lone events don’t perpetuate long-term suffering. Instead, survivors relive the event through vivid flashbacks, nightmares, and unwanted memories that repeatedly intrude on their everyday life. Amanda Spallacci is an assistant lecturer in the English and Film Studies Department at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. In a 2019 research paper, she argues that many rape trauma narratives focus on one individual rape scene rather than continuing, equally powerful scenes showing the effects of the rape on the survivor. Spallacci also suggests that by including such a scene, filmmakers perpetuate the false idea that rape cases require witnesses (in this case, audience members) to be prosecuted or even believable.
Collectively, we’ve misunderstood what trauma, PTSD, and triggers entail. Discourse too often dilutes the term “trigger” to mean anything remotely offensive or uncomfortable. However, in the context of trauma, the word originates from psychology and the experiences of patients with PTSD, who often find that particular objects, environments, and sensory experiences induce—or “trigger”—profoundly disruptive and involuntary psychological and physiological responses such as panic attacks.
The term “trigger warning” implies that the advisory is aimed at people with PTSD. However, such advisories aren’t specific enough to fully cover the depth of what triggers are. Though some find their triggers include broad topics, many strike only the sufferer as distressing. Most of us don’t see a specific style of door and experience a panic attack with flashbacks. But the survivor of sexual assault from our previous example may experience just that. And if we only recognize graphic scenes as potentially triggering, what are we saying to that person? Are we dictating what “counts” as a valid or invalid trigger (even though, by definition, triggers are involuntary)?
When we use “trigger warning,” we may misrepresent to audiences without trauma what the medical term means, especially now that it’s so politicized. Most audience members don’t have PTSD and may not understand what a trigger actually is, instead relying on snippets from daily conversation, political pundits, media, or online interactions to deduce what it means. Hence the concerns outlined in some studies about the indirect effects of the phrase on public perception of trauma and trauma survivors.
What we’re really asking for is a type of content warning aimed at subjects that we already broadly consider sensitive or unsafe—such as sexual assault, self-harm, or graphic violence—but that we’ve now acknowledged are associated with trauma. We’re not asking for a notice about scenes containing fireworks or backfiring cars, even though such sounds are common triggers for war veterans and gunshot victims. We’re not asking for warnings about music playing in another room, certain doors, or other objects, sights, sounds, and sensations that we generally consider benign but that—to some individuals, in some contexts—can trigger PTSD symptoms.
So, what can we do as mass media storytellers—filmmakers, musicians, writers, etc.—to display respect for people’s experiences without contributing to the misrepresentation of a mental illness? Rather than advocate for trigger warnings, we could instead expand content warnings to accommodate the role of trauma in everyday life. By utilizing terms such as “content advisory” or “content note,” we neutralize the politicized nature of the word “trigger” while still respecting audience boundaries.
Further, it’s vital not to use such advisories as a crutch for saying we “did our part”—especially not when outdated portrayals and stereotypes persist in our work. Violent, unstable war veterans or graphic and shocking rape scenes may hold dramatic value and, on their surface, appear like searing social commentary. However, these depictions may prove counterproductive.
Our empathy for one character in what we see as extraordinary circumstances may not translate over to real-life situations. We may frame the matter in an episodic instead of a thematic way or otherwise erase some traumas’ sociocultural and political foundations, such as sexual assault. It’s our responsibility not only to prepare our audience for possibly disturbing stories, but to be aware of how we convey trauma in our storytelling to them.
Survivors are resilient. With support, PTSD and other trauma sufferers heal and live fulfilling, healthy lives, even after the most devastating events. Experiencing a traumatic event is not a permanent death sentence for your quality of life, and neither does it make you fragile or in need of overprotection. While the concept of trigger warnings originated from a compassionate place, their implications may, in reality, harm the cause we’re advocating for. By misrepresenting and politicizing triggers and trauma, the term can draw focus away from more productive discourse, such as pushing for comprehensive policies that prioritize mental wellness as a vital element of our society.
As storytellers, we can still use content notices for touchy subjects, and the appropriate breadth and detail of those notices depend on the intended audience and goals of your work. However, our job isn’t done with a 5-second title card or one cautionary sentence—we can’t neglect incorporating authentic stories and realistic portrayals that cultivate an accurate idea of what trauma is. Otherwise, what good are we doing telling such stories, anyway?