How I Understand Triggers

There seems to be a lot of anger out there directed at people who request content warnings. So here’s my post addressing it.

Triggers are a real thing. Remember Pavlov’s dog? They rang the bell, presented food. The dog began (whether it liked it or not) to associate the sound of the bell with food. This resulted in the physiological response of salivation. At this point in the game, we can’t really say that we don’t form unconscious associations between events. We also don’t get to assume that we only form associations for positive events. If you’re exposed to a stimulus followed by a negative event, and if this is repeated often enough, you’ll be conditioned to respond a certain way to that negative event. You don’t get a choice in the matter, just like the dogs could not choose not to salivate.

Depending on what the negative event is, you can have a range of unpleasant reactions to some stimuli. Nobody doubts that someone returning from combat may be affected, and may unintentionally return to the mindset that kept them alive when certain stimuli like unexpected loud noises happen. Everyone, however, seems to doubt that anyone else can suffer from PTSD, or experience some of the symptoms.

Content warning: detailed description of flashback.


It starts with a jolt, like that sensation where you miss a step and nearly fall down the stairs. Your nerves are on fire, you’re as scared as you were when it happened. Your body’s gearing up for a fight, or to run away, or to freeze and hope you’re not noticed. Your heart rate goes up, you’re panting for breath. You try to take slow, calm breaths but it doesn’t help. You try not to think about it. Intrusive thoughts force their way into your head. No amount of self control, relaxation techniques or distractions will stop your brain from replaying the event in horrifying, vivid detail. Not just images, but sounds, smells, sensations. You feel sick.

If you’re lucky, nobody’s making it worse. If you’re unlucky, someone’s being insensitive, or trying to help in the wrong way. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets, the more people react in unhelpful ways. It goes in a vicious cycle until you feel like there’s no way out. It can take hours, once the stimulus has stopped, for the panic to subside and the memories to stop invading your thoughts. You’re left drained after spending that long in a panicked state, it takes more hours of rest, self-care, taking it easy to get you back somewhere close to your normal state.


Being prepared can stop this from happening. Knowing that there is a risk like the event described above gives people the option to avoid the stimulus, or to make an informed decision as to whether the risk is acceptable, or if it can be mitigated in some way. Content warnings can let people choose when and how they address topics.

Of course, there are some people who think that anyone who has a reaction that severe to something that doesn’t bother them means that people with any kind of PTSD or anxiety disorder should at best stay away from anywhere they might be exposed to their stimulus, or at worst be warehoused in psychiatric institutions. Institutions are not the place to put people with PTSD, seriously. You’re likely to encounter far more stimuli for anxiety attacks in an institution (especially one that provides help to other people with mental illnesses) than you are out in public. Just to list a few:

  • loud noises
  • violation of bodily autonomy
  • violation of others’ bodily autonomy
  • revictimisation (people with mental illnesses are more likely to be targets of abuse, abuse and neglect are rife in institutions)
  • having no control over your activities
  • having no control over your living environment
  • disruption of routine

Of course, we could just avoid everywhere that might cause an anxiety attack, but that could mean avoiding any or all public spaces, and spaces where information is published.

Kids and sensitive persons shouldn’t watch gory, violent movies. We have a rating system and a warning system that lets you know what you’re about to watch so that you can make an informed decision as to whether you want to watch it, and when. We don’t suggest that sensitive persons shouldn’t watch any television ever, and we don’t suggest that all television is universally suitable. We give people warnings about the type of content portrayed, and let them decide what to do.

Just like the BBC announces “viewers may find some of the following images disturbing”, other content producers can and should give their consumers a heads-up if the content they’re providing could cause distress. It’s not pandering, coddling or encouraging Special Snowflake Syndrome. It’s a line of text that could prevent someone from being retraumatised.

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