What Is a Trigger Warning?
We live in a society where freedom of speech is a basic human right and almost always an expectation. But what if that free speech is harmful to a person, or even to the audience at large? What do we do then? Of course, there are regulations now in place that censor music or rate the level of violence in movies and tv shows, but what about books? Do words really have the potential to carry that much power whereby simply reading their content can create both a negative emotional and visceral reaction? Should we normalize, within this society, the expectation to give a “trigger warning”?
I recently read a book for my book club where the general theme was believe to be a “psychological thriller.” A perfect storyline fitting for the month of October where we celebrate and bask in all things scary! But, unfortunately, the reality was far from my expectation when it came to this assigned tale. The storyline detailed graphic and extremely violent acts of abuse, and it highlighted the protagonist’s active eating disorder. Nowhere in the book’s synopsis was there even a hint of the dark turns this story would eventually lead.
After reading the book, I discussed my concerns with my peer who chose this “thriller” for our October book read. The first thing that I relayed to her was that this book should have had a trigger warning. She agreed and almost seemed embarrassed for suggesting such a traumatizing novel. She apologized profusely and even stated that she had no clue that this book carried so much emotional weight.
Caring for Yourself When Triggered
But here, again, lies the dilemma; both of us are reasonable adults, who are both capable of making responsible choices. So, how did we end up getting catfished into reading such a disturbing book? I don’t expect any literacy councils to swoop in and implement any “safety” reading regulations, so what do you do if you ever find yourself triggered by the content in front of you?
We may all experience triggers from time to time throughout our life – some more than others based on our own emotional experiences and histories. When treating clients with anxiety disorders, there are several protocols that I recommend when a trigger does occur. the first safety measure would be to remove yourself from whatever elicited the negative reaction. In this case, close the book!
Yes, feelings are emotions, but our feelings are also physically connected to our bodies. I always suggest doing physical activity to help release the negative symptoms. For example, after closing the book, get up and go outside for a walk. Not only are you physically expelling negative emotions such as stress and anxiety, but you are also distracting yourself by physically changing your environment.
Another way we can use the senses to evoke feelings of peace and neutrality is to do something physically soothing, like taking a hot bath or petting your beloved dog or cat. Lastly, make sure you have someone who you can talk to during times of stress or crisis. Whether they are a significant other, a friend, or a therapist, it’s always important to have a support system in place.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are from when I would go to the library with my mom and pick out my new books for the week. For me, reading is an experience. It can be an adventure, a love story, or a heroic tale of redemption. Not only does reading take us on epic imaginative journeys, but reading also allows us the opportunity to learn and grow.
My hope for you is that you continue to take pleasure in the storylines that come across your lap and continue to expand your knowledge in areas that interest you. Ultimately, you decide where your boundaries lie, and it is important that you know how to protect that sacred line.
Experiencing a traumatic event or a trigger can cause you to feel knocked off course. It can often be helpful to find a space where you can safely process your experience at a pace that helps you feel safer. If you’d like to discuss trauma or any other matter in more detail, schedule an appointment with Noelle here.