Imagine this. You’ve just picked up a new book to start in the hopes of relaxing a bit before bed, but halfway through the first chapter, you come across a scene depicting a character self harming, describing both the act and the character’s mindset in horrific detail.
For most people, reading this scene would be slightly uncomfortable, but they’d be completely fine otherwise. For others, though, it could lead to them falling back into dangerous habits they’d spent ages trying to manage.
That’s not to say that authors can’t write topics that are triggering. In fact, to many readers, it’s important for sensitive topics such as mental health or trauma to be written about in books to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness or allow people to learn how to deal with their trauma through identifying with characters whose experiences reflect their own.
However, different people react to triggers differently, and while it can be helpful for one person to see characters overcoming the same issues they’ve struggled with, to others, it may serve as a reminder of the trauma they’re trying to escape from.
It raises the question: how do authors strike a balance between writing important topics and not overwhelming or triggering their readers?
The obvious answer seems to be putting content warnings on books that include disturbing descriptions or triggering topics.
The case for trigger warnings
Society as a whole is becoming more empathetic towards people who struggle with mental illnesses, and as a result of this, trigger warnings, which flag content that people may find offensive or upsetting, have become common in mass media.
Trigger warnings give people the choice to avoid books dealing with content they may find distressing, or evaluate if they’re in the right mindset to engage with certain topics. In an episode of On The Media podcast, Cornell Philosophy professor Kate Mann explained: “The key really is to think about trigger warnings as preparation for people to engage rationally, calmly and fully with the material.”
But if content warnings are helpful to certain readers, why are they still heavily debated by authors and readers alike? I decided to look into some of the arguments against publishing trigger warnings.
Are trigger warnings actually helpful?
One of the biggest arguments surrounding trigger warnings is that many studies have shown they have minimal impact on the reader.
A 2019 Harvard study into content warnings found content warnings did not stop students, including trauma survivors, from continuing to read sensitive content. Anxiety levels reported by the participants did not decrease, and if anything, their research suggests that readers reported an increased level of anxiety due to the anticipation of disturbing content.
More harm than good?
In a New York Times article American psychology professor Richard J. McNally, wrote: “Trigger warnings are counter therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD.”
He explains that PTSD therapy often involves gradual exposure to traumatic content to increase the person’s capacity to deal with distress, and people backing this argument worry that by providing an excuse to actively disengage with content they might find triggering, trauma survivors may prolong the distress caused by these triggers.
There is a thin line between trigger warnings and red-flagging books that deal with controversial topics, and educators warn that the misuse of content labels will cross this line, leading to books with important messages being hidden away from the public or shelved separately to other books.
A 2022 investigation by The Times found that ten UK universities have been removing books involving “challenging” content from their reading material.
But if every book that could provoke distressing conversations about race, gender, sexuality and discrimination are flagged as ‘triggering’, could that mean we’ll lose access to them?
There are as many triggers as there are people who read, and it’s impossible for authors to identify everything in their book that could potentially cause traumatic reactions in their readers. Abuse and mental health issues, for example, are common triggers, but what about the readers with less obvious triggers, like certain colours or certain textures? If it’s not possible to flag every single possible trigger in the book, is it worth flagging any at all?
What do you think about the use of trigger warnings? Let us know in the comments.
If you liked this post then read Think piece: is discrimination necessary in works of fiction? or Can Cli-Fi save the world? next.
Shani is a journalism student obsessed with books, dance, and all things true crime. When she’s not stuck in the middle of a good book, she’s listening to podcasts or watching hour-long video essays on YouTube.
Favourite genre: Crime.