"Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings"
When I was a pre-teen I lived in a suburb outside Cincinnati, where Larry Flynt,
publisher of ‘Hustler’ magazine, was embroiled in a fight with the courts over whether or
not what he printed was pornographic. In what could best be labelled a provocative
maneuver, Flynt printed thousands of pamphlets that were distributed to average
households in the area, including ours. The pamphlets contained clear, vivid, horrible
photos of Vietnam War victims. Flynt’s point? What the American government is doing
is obscene and pornographic, not what I’m doing.
This stuff should absolutely not have been viewed by children. But kids being kids—we
got our hands on them (sorry, Mom). And while I won’t go into detail here, those
photographs stuck with me. Those photos impacted me. Those photos are the
foundation of why I am so strongly against war today. I wish every person in Congress
and the White House would look at those photos and reflect on what the cost of
innocent lives really looks like.
Like most people, I have been impacted by art, by film, by literature. Sure, I like a
heartwarming story now and then, but the films I love, the novels I remember, the works
that have affected how I think and live, are all uncomfortable at times. How else do we
learn empathy? Compassion? Tolerance? Through art and literature we transport our
best selves temporarily into someone else’s shoes, we feel their pain, and take away
My son has a generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve seen him on a bad day and it’s
disconcerting to say the least. One of my best friends was abused as a child, and
unfortunately PTSD is her constant companion. A close friend was involved in a
shooting a couple years ago and while he’s okay physically—emotionally, not so much.
I know that 75% of people experience trauma in their lives, and 10% of them will have
PTSD to some degree. I’m not saying triggers aren’t real—they are. It’s well
documented that PTSD sufferers can and do face distressing and automatic symptoms
in which they reexperience their trauma.
However, triggers are also very individual, unpredictable, and often unique. According to
the American Psychological Association, ‘Not only do many people with PTSD
experience distress without knowing what triggered it, but triggers often relate to
experiences occurring immediately prior to the trauma, not the trauma itself’.”(1)
Breath and Shadow, abilitymaine, and our sponsor ROSC, have decided to implement
content warning labels. We do this in hope that making reminders of trauma more
predictable and controllable with content warnings might reduce distress.
I have reservations. I certainly do not feel qualified to assign trigger warning labels, and
don’t believe we can possibly provide a warning for everything that might be a trigger to
I’ve read on various sites that trigger/content warning labels aren’t censorship, and this
is true, technically. But whose experience isn’t changed, even subtly, by police tape
outside a building you are about to enter? A dozen colorful balloons tied to the mail
box of a friend’s house? Catching a headline that a certain movie was good or bad
before actually viewing it? Whose expectations don’t drop when approaching a gourmet
food truck and the first thing on the menu they notice is hot dogs? The human mind is
highly impressionable, as millions of wealthy marketing managers will attest.
Breath and shadow was originally founded to give writers who are disabled a voice,
because the mainstream media wasn’t much interested in what we had to say. I worry
that content warning labels might scare off potential readers at a time in our world
history when we most need to be heard. I worry it will put off writers who have powerful
messages to share from submitting them to us. If society is ever going to change, it
needs exposure to the sometimes raw, sometimes uncomfortable content Breath and
So if you are one of our readers, please don’t hesitate to dive in. If you are a contributor,
continue sending us work that illuminates your life and experiences. And if the new
content labels help someone avoid re-experiencing trauma, then we made the right
(1) American psychological association journal, July 2017
If you or someone you know are suffering from untreated PTSD, we urge you to get
professional help. Some resources that might be useful include:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
When you’re ready to seek treatment for your PTSD, SAMHSA’s hotline can help you
locate mental health facilities in your area. This free national hotline is available 24/7
and can also direct you to local support groups, community-based organizations, and
other mental health resources. You can also visit their online treatment locator
Text Connect to 741741:
If you’re in the grips of a PTSD flashback, talking to a stranger on the phone may be the
last thing you want (or are able) to do. Luckily, help for people in crisis is just a text
away. This free, 24/7 support service provides access to trained crisis counselors via
text message, so you can break out of the PTSD episode and take the next step toward
Chris Kuell is the Editor-in Chief of Breath and Shadow.