What Is a Trigger Warning?

Trigger warnings, also called content warnings, are a way of notifying people about content that they may find particularly harmful or disturbing due to their past experiences. For instance, someone who has been the victim of extreme violence might find that the violence in a movie brings those memories and emotions back to the surface. For a person with a history of suicidal thoughts, a book narrated by a suicidal character might make it difficult for them as a reader not to fall into some of their old thinking patterns. This sort of thing is generally referred to as being “triggered.” Reactions can me mild or extremely strong, particularly in people with PTSD.

Trigger warnings don’t mean that anyone who reads a particular book or sees a particular movie will have a negative reaction–fortunately many, many people don’t have triggers. Trigger warnings are intended for people who might be particularly sensitive to certain subjects based on their own life experiences.

When someone undergoes something traumatic, it often affects them long after the event itself is over. Working through an event like sexual assault, for instance, can take years. Additionally, many people deal with ongoing sources of pain, such as institutionalized racism, that can compound over a lifetime. For people who have dealt with these types of trauma in their lives, seeing depictions of certain things they’ve experienced can be extremely painful. In some cases it can also destabilize a person’s mental health, or undo some of their progress in dealing with an issue.

We live in a world in which bad things happen, and when people are victims of traumatic events, it can be hard to live their lives. Trigger warnings are just one small, relatively simple thing that can make life easier for those dealing with issues that are already difficult enough.

Trigger warnings for books allow people to make an informed choice about what they do or do not want to read. Triggers warnings sometimes help just by making a person prepared for what they’re about to read–for some people, simply not being surprised is enough to keep from being triggered. Other times people use trigger warnings as a cue to check in with their current mental state and decide if this is something they feel strong enough to deal with right now. And for people who know themselves well enough to know there are certain things they can’t handle right now, trigger warnings are a way to avoid harmful content altogether–and to worry less about coming across triggers in other texts.

Not everyone needs trigger warnings–not even all people who have been through trauma. But those who do should have access to them, which is what Trigger Warning Bookshelf aims to provide.

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