This page is an overview of the concept of "triggers," for those who want to know more about triggering in a meta sense for their own writing or for understanding the concept of triggering in Real Life to some extent. If you want to read or write about fictional examples, please go to Trauma Button.
Do not put trigger warnings on any TV Tropes pages other than Fan Fic Recommendations. Works that have full pages should already indicate the existence of triggering content in the description or trope list in a natural way, and a trope's description should be a good indication of whether or not there will be any significant triggering content in its examples.
In the broadest sense, a trigger is an experience that reliably provokes a particular response from a person, regardless of context. Stories generally try to provoke responses somehow, but the fact that a Tear Jerker successfully jerked your tears doesn't mean you've been triggered per se. If you wanted to, you could re-read and analyze the story until you got thoroughly bored of it; whereas if it triggered you, it would be impractical or impossible to get used to it. Even if it takes a while to become fully inured, you will tend to get more comfortable with the story as you study it, and your responses will change accordingly.
Genuine triggers provoke the same response, time after time, however familiar the trigger should be. Strictly speaking, they can change over time, but they do so at an imperceptible pace; they sometimes return at full strength without warning; and they are unlikely to ever fully vanish, even if they get small enough to control. Needless to say, since triggers are based on personal experience, they are extremely subjective.
Technically, triggers don't have to make you feel bad — any emotion counts — but the kind that make you feel good are usually referred to by another term, like Happy Place or Fetish. Possibly the most famous example of a sensory cue triggering pleasant emotions is Marcel Proust's account of how the taste of limeflower tea with a madeleine cookie opened up a deluge of long-forgotten happy childhood memories when his aunt used to give him the same snack.
Suicide is a very difficult topic to deal with both in Real Life and in media. Unfortunately, some depressed or suicidal (or recovering) people (or those who have lost someone close or meaningful to suicide) can become triggered by some explorations of depression, suicide, and hopelessness. Due to the seriousness of this trigger, it is good Netiquette and being a decent human being to offer at least some warning of suicide, of ruminations on suicide and suicidality, or on things that are guaranteed to be severely depressing and bring out such emotions. It doesn't even have to be a label or note, just an R-Rated Opening or blurb can suffice.
(A fairly good example of how not to properly handle suicide triggers is found in the marketing and promotion around the film Seven Pounds as well as the writing of it. With a "purposeful suicide" as the main plot point, woe be to anyone with suicide triggers who didn't check the spoilers or talk to someone who had seen it first.)
Depiction of the death of a loved one and its related grief and loss is a big one here—it rides the line between suicide trigger and PTSD trigger, depending on how badly someone has been personally impacted by these things. (Of course, it could also just be a Berserk Button if the person who reads it finds the experience nothing like theirs or insulting to theirs). Nevertheless, this also needs to be directly warned for because of its suicidality risk.
Also, hearing something like "I hope you die" or "I never want to see you again" can trigger suicide. In some people, even hearing this told to others or being told this as a joke can be a trigger. Or, in the joke case, they will keep asking nervously "Do you really mean that?" repeatedly.
That said, not everyone who is even depressed or suicidal is triggered by any or all "non-therapeutic" depictions of depression or suicide—for some, it is actually a vital part of healing, to recognize that they are not alone in how they feel and others have experienced their emotions and feelings, and for others, such depictions are a way of allowing themselves to get in touch with their emotions. Warning for depression or suicide triggers is important—but self-censoring or censoring depictions of them and/or insisting that only depictions of depression/depressing themes/suicide that end in a therapist's office and finding hope via official means are "ethical" is problematic in its own way, for precisely the above reasons, because what might trigger one person and push them over the edge is the same thing that might make someone else realize they are not alone and there are people who understand.
There is one other type of suicide trigger that has nothing to do with depicting suicide or depression itself—this one consists of something that purports itself to be anything from compassionate. Instead, religious groups, Social Darwinists and proponents of Tough Love "realness" say something on the lines of "You people should pull yourselves up by the bootstraps, and if you don't, you are WEAK" as if to reinspire a will to survive. All psychiatric studies agree that this form of treatment on suicide backfires horribly: the sense of contempt, guilt tripping, and sanctimony only becomes a REINFORCEMENT for suicidal behaviour, justifying self-destruction instead of curing it. This most affects people the most if they suffer from low self-esteem/never feeling "good enough" or "real enough" (such as depression, anxiety, anorexia nervosa, and some forms of OCD), and those who once lived in situations such as abusive religious groups or the like, because someone who feels like they Can't Catch Up may well think suicide is relieving the world of themselves, or "taking responsibility" in the only way they can. In fact, Social Darwinist Honour-based societies like Nazi Germany and modern-day Japan are notorious for having some of the highest suicide rates in history, because the slightest imperfection was a moral impetus to off oneself.
Seizure triggers are far more rare but are the other type of trigger that can cause direct harm: the viewing of a pattern or flashing lights or colors will induce an epileptic seizure in a small segment of the population, which may be life-threatening. The only people who intentionally post these with the intent of causing a seizure are Trolls, though inadvertent posting of a seizure-inducing video or image can occasionally happen when the poster doesn't live with epilepsy (or with epilepsy triggered by visual imagery) and isn't aware that the image or video could have that effect. Normally, if you are posting a video with flashing lights or colors (or extremely fast movement or dizzying patterns) it is seen as good Netiquette to post a seizure trigger warning and avoid autoplay.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very complicated mental injury beyond the scope of TV Tropes in and of itself, but one interaction between PTSD and fiction is the concept of the PTSD trigger. Someone suffering from PTSD may be triggered by many things—and sometimes, sadly, some things in fiction may induce this trigger response. Someone who has been triggered by a trigger may go through more emotional discomfort than fiction is supposed to produce, physical discomfort, terror and depression beyond what the story was supposed to induce, flashbacks to their experience of the traumatic event, or even a full Heroic BSoD or Freak Out.
There also exist two different types of PTSD: "Classic PTSD" and "Complex PTSD".
- Classic PTSD is (usually) caused by a single, intense ordeal during which there was a very real threat to life or limb.
- Complex PTSD is caused by repeated trauma occurring over a prolonged period of time such as being a victim of human trafficking, childhood abuse, a prisoner of war, and so on.
The (very simplified) difference between squick and a PTSD trigger is this: squick is staring at a fictional disemboweled corpse and going "Ewww, I didn't need to see that." A trigger is staring at the same corpse and remembering the Real Life maiming and death of someone so vividly you can still see it in your head, still hear it in your ears, and revert to that same emotional pit in an instant. Triggers may be described as hyper-personalized Squick meets hyper-personalized Nightmare Fuel.
Note that some fiction (as well as some non-fiction documentaries) deliberately include probable PTSD triggers in hopes of getting those who are not triggered by them to at least get a hint of what the trauma is like. For some events, you have to choose between a trigger or The Theme Park Version.
Some PTSD triggers are neither Squick nor Nightmare Fuel. They may even be Nightmare Retardant to anyone but the triggered individual. For some, a white sheet on a bed or hearing a sob can be a trigger. Sometimes something as seemingly innocuous as a plate of eggs or a red balloon may be a trigger for some people.
That said, there are some common (though by no means universal) triggers for PTSD survivors that it is generally considered good Netiquette to warn for in media (of course there are exceptions). These are:
- ANYTHING in the Abuse Tropes or Sexual Harassment and Rape Tropes sections (the sections themselves may trigger PTSD for Domestic Abuse, rape, or sexual abuse victims)
- Depiction of suicide, or characters considering suicide, can be triggering for those who have survived a suicidal phase or have known someone who committed suicide.
- Paedophilia, Parental Incest, BrotherSister Incest, Twincest. Any of these can be triggers for PTSD for rape and sexual abuse victims, and a Berserk Button as well.
- Depictions of substance usage, intoxication, or the consequences thereof. These can be triggering for people with addict parents, family members, significant others, or friends, especially if their substance usage was directly tied to abusive behavior, and can also be triggering to former addicts who fell deep into their addiction.
- The presence of brutal, commanding, and/or domineering authority figures, especially law enforcement or military or religious figures, can trigger PTSD if one was abused by authority figures or knows someone who was, and can trigger anxiety, OCD, outright paranoia, or other fear-based behavior. This applies not only to fiction but to their appearances in Real Life, which is how the appearance of police or military can actually escalate a nonviolent or slightly threatening situation into an openly violent one. note
- Depiction of a specific disaster or type of it (e.g. a tornado, a plane crash) can trigger people who have disaster-related PTSD. This can even extend to things only tangentially related to the disaster—e.g. the sound of the Emergency Broadcast System or tornado sirens or seeing a similar plane/hearing a flight attendant's safety briefing. note
- Depiction, especially in a favorable light, of brainwashing-or More Than Mind Control type techniques, specifically in the sense of cult-like thought-reform, be they used by actual cult members in the story or inadvertently by designated love interests. These can be major triggers for some people who have been victims of Domestic Abuse or of abusive religious groups.
- Depiction of the Apocalypse or similar The End of the World as We Know It tropes or theories, which can be triggering for people who were traumatized from being brainwashed into believing that the end of the world as we know it was imminently due.
- Depiction of a number of debilitating diseases such as AIDS and cancer (trigger for people who are either current or past sufferers, or people who know/knew someone who has)
- Any form of graphic violence, which can be PTSD trigger for someone who has been assaulted or in combat or who survived abuse.
- Highly intense emotional scenes, especially with an undercurrent of threatening or intimidation.
- Depictions of Domestic Abuse and its subtropes, which can be a PTSD trigger and/or Berserk Button for victims of abuse)
- Political, religious, racial, or sexual content, especially that of a very aggressive or insulting nature, can trigger PTSD. It can also hit several of the triggers described below on the way.
- War depictions/combat/military-related depictions or tropes, which can trigger combat-related PTSD.
- The Screaming Woman.
- Screaming/shrieking/yelling in general especially at close range (whether out of sadness, fear, rage...) can be a trigger to those who suffered intensive verbal abuse (e.g. someone who went through something like "est" or "Attack Therapy" or various other religious/"therapeutic" sects that practice it, someone who was in a Domestic Abuse situation), or alternately, who were in a situation where their own screams for help went unanswered.
There are also triggers for negative behavior that can cause a relapse of the condition itself, such as addictions or other negative behaviors. The difference between squick and a negative behavioral trigger is that with these triggers, the response is not comparable to being squicked. Instead, the response is pleasurable but unwanted/dangerous to the individual and may risk their recovery from an addiction or a pattern of compulsive behavior. For example, seeing someone smoking makes someone who has recently quit smoking crave another cigarette, or seeing a depiction of bulimia may make someone want to binge and purge again, or seeing a razor blade may make someone want to self-harm; and going to a restaurant and being seated too close to the bar is often torture for a recovering alcoholic.
Some common (though by no means universal) triggers for negative behavior or addictions are generally considered good Netiquette to warn for in media (of course there are exceptions). These are:
- Political, religious, racial, or sexual content, especially that of a very aggressive or insulting nature.
- Self-injury, self-mutilation, or extreme masochism. These can trigger self-injury and injury avoidance OCD.
- Use of alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs, especially if it's a major story or character element. You probably don't need to warn for these if they're passing references or if the nature of the story itself serves as a warning for them (for example, in a noir or a story set in the 1950s, Everybody Smokes and the Hard-Drinking Tropes are understood to be part of the territory)
- Depiction of anorexia, bulimia, or extreme body negativity. These can trigger eating disorders. So can seeing thin people like the Isabelle Caro ad or seeing weight or calorie numbers.
- Depiction of or ability to engage in games of chance/Level Grinding. These can be a trigger for gambling or MMORPG addicts. note
Hybrid PTSD and addiction and negative behavior triggers
A hybrid type of both PTSD and negative behavioral triggers is where the trigger produces stress which may or may not be related to PTSD, but it is an unpleasant stimulus that leads to negative behavior rather than an obvious Heroic BSoD or Freak Out. This type of trigger is more commonly depicted in media and has its own trope, I Need a Freaking Drink, except substitute whatever the person relies on for "drink."
Anger triggers, while somewhat less potent in most cases, are more commonly depicted in media and have their own trope, the Berserk Button. That said, in some cases they ''can'' be potent enough to result in physical violence against the person who invoked them (the "fighting words" defense for assault in common law systems relies on this, that what someone said was so recognizably enraging that they became an Asshole Victim and the person who punched/slapped them was entirely justified in doing so, e.g. someone who does not have N-Word Privileges using the word to someone who does and getting punched for it or a man who calls a woman the word referenced in Country Matters and gets slapped may not only not have a case in court, but the police may even refuse to press charges viewing the assault as "he got what he deserved" or the person who said the "fighting words" as agreeing to mutual combat by doing so. However, it should be noted that the U.S. supreme court does not generally consider insults, obscenities or offensive remarks, in and of themselves, fighting words.). Unfortunately, in rare occasions an anger trigger may even lead to homicidal behavior (and even one of these is recognized under law—"voluntary manslaughter" in the US legal system occasionally covers homicides where someone was arguably driven beyond any rationality or sense into a blind killing rage in the moment—the textbook examples being when someone walks in on their spouse cheating on them and violently assaults the other man/other woman, or happens upon someone abusing an animal or child and, instead of calling the police or nonviolently ending the crime, kills the abuser)
Moral Guardians and the Bowdlerize tend to assume that nearly everyone and anyone under a certain age automatically suffer from being triggered and often use this as a part of New Media Are Evil and You Can Panic Now, which often leads to people assuming the legitimately triggered are in league with them—which is not the truth, for the most part. A legitimately triggered person merely wants to be warned of and avoid the triggering content, while Moral Guardians or the Bowdlerize are actively opposed to its mere existence.
Trolls tend to delight in trying to force people into viewing triggering content on shock sites or by posting nonexistent or misleading warnings. A Flame War can erupt when a Fan Fic writer or New Media artist refuses to provide proper warnings as warning for triggers is considered proper Netiquette and knowingly forcing someone to view them is considered Trolling, yet at the same time some people are genuinely unaware of the concept. Internet drama often results when the necessity of trigger warnings itself becomes a debate.
There's also the concept of the "reverse trigger," in that something that "should be" disturbing or triggering in the bad way actually triggers a different reaction. Intense interest is one such "alternate response." (e.g. a crime or disaster victim wanting to gain control by learning more about the event and how it happens / how he/she survived / how it can be prevented/defended against, so they obsessively research something that "should" be a PTSD trigger). Outright fetish is another such response, and a very controversial one, because the fetishes that result are triggering to other people and often seen as sick or unhealthy or offensive (e.g. fetishes for racial humiliation roleplay or dubious/non-consensual sex scenarios in fiction or roleplay fall into this category)
Trigger Warnings themselves are obviously, it should be noted, fairly controversial on the whole. That controversy generally comes from a few sources:
- Fiction writers who legitimately do want to surprise readers and don't want to reveal a shocking plot twist or a surprising scene just because it involves a trigger.
- People who believe that trigger warnings (or trigger warnings beyond a certain extent, e.g. they may be fine warning for rape or seizure-inducing content, but aren't warning for "bared dog teeth" or "spiders") are Political Overcorrectness.
- Overlapping with the above group, the group that often causes people to view trigger warnings as just that—those who conflate being "offended" or "upset" with being "triggered" and are demanding warnings for content that at most makes them angry but capable enough to go into great detail in a comment about how angry and offended they are.
- To make things even more complicated, there are things which appear entirely innocent but which are triggering to others—the classic being a backfiring car sounding like a gunshot to someone triggered by gunshots. A more contemporary example is posting pictures or descriptions of Food Porn, which appears innocent but which can be triggering to people with eating disorders, or an image of a potted daisy, which may be triggering to someone who is reminded of a sexual abuser.
- And to make things even more complicated, as noted above, there are people who use exposure to what other people consider triggers as Addiction Displacement or harm reduction, who have fetishes for things other people consider highly triggering and offensive, who seek out known or potential triggers to try to gain control over their responses to them or over the event happening again, and/or who simply didn't develop a specific trigger even though they "should" have and developed no trigger or another trigger instead (e.g. an assault victim who is not triggered by graphic violence or guns, but who is by a color or smell present at the crime scene)
- And of course, the Troll, the Straw Misogynist, and others who really do want people to be hurt and don't really care if anyone is hurt—and blame the victims for being online in the first place.
It's also a rather hotly debated question of where exactly trigger warnings belong. Blogs? Comics? Literature? TV? Movies? College syllabi? Ratings systems and Content Warnings do usually provide some help, but even those aren't as specific as some would like. (The easily triggered will know they may want to stay clear of a film that's rated R "for intense graphic violence," but a movie rated PG-13 "for some thematic elements" isn't quite so helpful.) Or if a professor is teaching Huckleberry Finn, should the syllabus include a trigger warning for its racist language, even though the book itself is anti-racist? As you can see, this can get very complicated very quickly.
See the Nuclear Weapons Taboo.
The Ban on Politics is arguably an attempt to deal with a nigh-universal Berserk Button. Not Safe for Work is a related warning about the presence of material (such as erotic or violent imagery) that shouldn't be viewed indiscreetly; Content Warnings serve a similar purpose.