In Favor of Trigger Warnings for Books

in favor of trigger warnings

Trigger warnings for books have been, and continue to be, a very controversial topic. While many people (myself included) feel that trigger warnings are an essential part of making reading accessible to people with mental illnesses and/or who have survived trauma, others fear that trigger warnings might spoil parts of the book. Others simply don’t understand what trigger warnings are for and some even think that if people can’t handle certain topics, they just shouldn’t read at all (yes, there really are people who feel that way). As I already mentioned, I strongly support the use of trigger warnings and today I want to explain why.

First of all, let’s explain what exactly a trigger warning is.

trigger warning definition

If you can’t see the picture, it states that a trigger warning is: “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).” Basically, it’s just a heads up that what you’re about to read (or watch) talks about some topics that might be hard to handle.

You’ve probably already come across trigger warnings with other media. For example, those little announcements at the beginning of a show or movie stating that it contains sexual violence or other mature content and “viewer discretion is advised”? Those are examples of trigger warnings. It lets people know that these are issues that are going to come up so that if the viewer doesn’t feel able or willing to deal with such issues, they can choose not to watch the show or movie.

Why is this important? Many people can be easily “triggered” by graphic material, especially people who are mentally ill or who are trauma survivors. If they are subjected to these types of images or descriptions, it can cause pretty severe reactions. For someone who has survived traumatic events, being caught off guard by depictions of similar things can cause them to have very mentally distressing flashbacks of that event. And for people with a mental illness like depression, certain things (like self-harm or suicide) might cause very strong emotional reactions that may lead to them then going and self-harming or attempting suicide themselves. Trigger warnings give them a chance to either mentally prepare themselves to deal with the subject if they’re able or to stop watching/reading and avoid the material and thus avoid a situation they don’t currently feel able to deal with.

So why don’t books have these warnings? Well, I can’t really answer that question. For some reason, even as the film and TV industries have made such warnings commonplace, the same has not happened in the publishing industry. And recent conversations among readers have caused a lot of arguments. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post, many people do support the integration of trigger warnings into books. We want to make books and, by extension, reading an accessible activity and a safe space for everyone to be able to enjoy. Trigger warnings are an essential first step to that. But others feel that trigger warnings are spoilers and therefore don’t support their use.

I’ll admit, I can kind of understand where these people are coming from. I hate spoilers. When I read, I like things to be as surprising and new to me as possible. I am one of those people who will avoid spoilers as much as possible. But when it comes down to it, I don’t think spoilers are worse than or equivalent to damaging someone’s mental health and I also don’t think trigger warnings are spoilers.

Does the warning for a movie stating that it has sexual violence ruin the whole movie for you? No! You know that it happens at some point in the film, sure, but you don’t know when it happens or who it happens to. It really doesn’t spoil anything about the movie. Trigger warnings for books wouldn’t either. Knowing that at some point there’s a rape scene wouldn’t ruin the whole book for you. But it would give people who need it a chance to prepare themselves for it.

Besides, even if trigger warnings were spoilers (which okay, some people think they are – fine), there are ways to incorporate them into a book without forcing everyone to look at them. Something as simple as putting the trigger warnings on a page at the back of the book, with a note one a front page that they’re located there, could work perfectly. As long as people know the page is there (because let’s be honest, how many times have you finished a book before realizing there was a glossary that would’ve cleared up so much confusion?), this would allow people who need trigger warnings to access them without spoiling things for anyone else.

This post is getting a little long (can you tell this is something I have a lot of thoughts on?), so I’ll stop here. To sum up my thoughts: trigger warnings are an important part of making reading accessible to and safe for people who have experienced traumatic events or who have mental illnesses and they can be included into books without spoiling other readers. The publishing industry should make an effort to make trigger warnings commonplace.

Do you think trigger warnings should be included in books?


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34 thoughts on “In Favor of Trigger Warnings for Books

  1. We see that in many book reviews it mentions that there are some content that may make one uncomfortable (trigger warnings) – now we think the publishers should just add it to the blurb, it’s not that hard and it definitely doesn’t spoil the book plot at all. You’ll just be aware that there may be some content that would make people feel disturbed by. (If they can do it for mature content they can sure do this for triggers that can affect ones health). This comment is way too long – but yes we agree with you. 😊

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    • Exactly! As helpful as reviewers including this information in their reviews can be, not everyone reads reviews before they buy books and may not realize that there are reviews that will mention trigger warnings. That’s why I think publishers should just include them right in the book – no one would have to go searching for them. 🙂

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  2. I completely agree with you, as I was reading this I thought, why don’t they just put trigger warnings somewhere in a book and then tell us where they are so we can choose if we want to read them or not, and then you said it! I think it’s a great idea, I also think they could put trigger warning in the book information section of goodreads. That why it’s not in direct view of people who class them as spoilers but also easily available for people who want to know.

    Even though I’m someone who hasn’t been through trauma in my life I completely understand the need for trigger warnings. I have such a big issue with animal cruelty and many times I’ve seen a blogger mention that it’s in a book so have chosen not to read it because I know it’s not good for my mental health. I think people who class these as spoilers need to think more seriously about the way it can affect people. I would rather be ‘spoiled’ for a book than have someone somewhere so negatively affected that they hurt themselves or something like that. This is such an important post, thank you!

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    • I completely agree with everything you’ve said! There are so many ways that publishers can include them without people feeling that the book has been “spoiled.” And like you said, I’d rather see spoilers than have someone end up reading something that really hurts them. Thanks for reading!

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  3. I feel like a lot of the reason that books haven’t adopted trigger warnings at the same pace as movies, television, etc. has a lot to do with the publishing industry being slower to adapt to change than other forms of media. I think that has a lot to do with how old books are. It’s a sort of “Things have always been done this way. Why change what works?” mentality that is present in other media but not quite as strongly, since those forms of media are newer. (Of course, there are ebooks and stuff, but I think a lot of the push for those changes came from outside the traditional publishing industry, which forced the publishing industry itself to take them seriously.)

    I also don’t understand the belief some people have that trigger warnings are spoilers. Most likely, the information in a trigger warning would correspond to something that might at least be hinted at in a summary of the book. Unless the trigger warning was about something used as a plot twist (which, since it might come out of nowhere, might actually need a trigger warning even more).

    Honestly, so much of the push back towards trigger warnings seems misguided to me. I’ve seen people argue that they go against free speech because they might prevent people from having to confront certain viewpoints, but that seems ridiculous to me. Trigger warnings aren’t preventing anyone from saying/writing anything, and people have a right to choose whether or not to read something anyway. There are plenty of reasons they could pass on something aside from a trigger warning and all a trigger warning does is help them make that decision much like a summary, cover, etc. might.

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    • I think the whole “free speech” thing has to do with people truly having no idea what trigger warnings are for. A lot of people seem to think they’re just for people who disagree with certain viewpoints and don’t want to read about them (which, really, is their right so I still don’t understand the outrage lol) rather than for people who are incredibly distressed and hurt by certain topics.

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  4. I think that trigger warnings are very important and should be included in books. I don’t think they spoil the book or anything like that, they would if they specifically said to which character something happens or who does something, but just mentioning that those triggers exist in the book is no spoiler at all. And I agree with you that putting triggers at the end of the book, so that people who need them can look them up, is an amazing idea – that way the people who think they are “spoilers” can easily avoid them.
    Personally I don’t have any triggers, but I still think they are very important. Reading should be an enjoyable experience and people shouldn’t fear to read something that would bring up bad memories, or anything like that. Great post Kourtni! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t have said it better myself! I don’t really have triggers either (although sometimes things can affect me if I’m having a particularly bad mental health day), but I think trigger warnings are so, so important for people who need them. Like you said, reading should be fun and shouldn’t be something that people need to fear!
      Thanks for reading! 🙂

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  5. I absolutely agree that trigger warnings should be a definite thing in books! And while I on some level understand that people might think of trigger warnings as spoilers, I feel like that the well-being of someone reading a book for fun is more important than a potential spoiler! And like you rightfully suggested, trigger warnings could be put in the back of the book and that way, if someone didn’t want to look at them – they wouldn’t have to!

    I remember when I read A List Of Cages at the beginning of the year, the scenes towards the end were really quite horrible to read – even as someone who hasn’t experienced abused before. And I can’t even imagine what reading those scenes would’ve been like for someone who HAS suffered from any form of abuse before! I definitely would’ve liked to have a little heads up at the beginning that there IS abuse described in the book!

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    • I couldn’t have said it better! I can’t imagine feeling like spoilers are more important than someone else’s mental health. Trigger warnings are so simple to include, but can have huge benefits. I’m really sorry to hear that you were caught off-guard! 😦 It really can be hard to find that kind of information and sometimes those scenes and descriptions seem to come out of nowhere and are things that you wouldn’t at all expect based on the blurb of the book.

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  6. I agree with all of this! I was actually talking to another blogger about trigger warnings recently because I’ve been wanting to start adding a section in my reviews whenever there is something triggering in a book I’ve read. Although, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have any triggers and can sometimes not catch things others would catch. That aside, I’m completely with you on publishers needing to add trigger warnings to books. I don’t see them as spoilers at all, just a warning to those who can’t handle certain things in books. And I mean, like you said, TV and films do it so why can’t books? It just takes a little extra ink or an extra page and would be so helpful to have. Hopefully one day we’ll see it happen. Great post, Kourtni! ♥

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    • I think it’s a great idea to include trigger warnings in your reviews, although I might be biased since I do that, haha 😉 I usually try to make a quick note in my phone every time I come across something that might be triggering, but I’m sure I miss some as well. Still, I think including at least some is better than none at all, you know? But it also shouldn’t be on reviewers to do that, which is why publishers need to step up and just include them right in the book.

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      • Yeah, you and one other person I know of are the only bloggers I’ve come across so far that include trigger warnings, which I love. 😊 I hadn’t thought about the fact that I could make a note in my phone. I will definitely have to do that! But, yeah, I completely agree. It shouldn’t be on us to do that. I’ve seen quite a few books even just on GR where they’ve started adding trigger warnings with the synopsis. It’s not that far of a stretch to go ahead and add them straight into the books themselves.

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  7. Preach it! I never really thought about this topic at all before, but now I can totally see how it would be such an important thing for books to have! I myself do like a little bit of warning because I sometimes can’t handle really tough subjects, so it would be an awesome thing to have a trigger warning. Love this post!

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  8. Love this post. ❤ I also don't think trigger warnings are spoilers, and even if some people believe they are, aren't they still preferable to causing a reader unnecessary harm or trauma? I have very few triggers, but when I'm feeling depressed, any kind of suicidal ideation definitely triggers me. I think trigger warnings can save people a lot of hurt.

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    • I completely agree. I can’t imagine feeling like spoilers are more important than people’s mental health. I don’t really have any triggers unless my mental health has been crap, but yeah, trigger warnings are super important.

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  9. Hi, so interesting post- fair warning, I’m going to have to disagree with you though. I very carefully considered whether to comment at all, because I know this is a sensitive issue- but there’s a lot of misinformation out there and I feel it’s important to try and clear some of this up (in all honesty, I don’t know if I can do the subject justice, but I will try my best). The truth is trigger warnings were originally used in “safe houses” for survivors of trauma, such as domestic abuse. They were not used as long term solutions and certainly were not designed for general consumption. In reality, if someone suffers from PTSD the long term solution is not to shelter oneself from things that trigger strong emotions- this is not the road to recovery.
    Leading psychologists argue against trigger warnings for this reason, such as Professor Metin Basoglu, (a specialist in trauma research) who told the Daily Telegraph that “Instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, they should be encouraging exposure. Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good” Similarly Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, wrote in the Pacific Standard, that “Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder”. Other prominent social scientists who argue against trigger warnings for general consumption are Christina Hoff Sommers and Jonathan Haidt (highly recommend them in general).
    I would argue that, while it may seem like the moral good to put trigger warnings on books, it will not actually benefit trauma survivors or people with mental health issues. It actually acts as a hindrance to recovery. This is without even touching on any of the political discussions around this subject or people that choose to use them because they personally dislike a subject. Books already contain warnings for graphic content- plus they have blurbs. I would veer on the side of not putting them on. I hope that gives another perspective and that you don’t mind me commenting like this!

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    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’m a psych major so I’m well aware of the fact that people with PTSD/mental health issues (particularly those with anxiety disorders) need to be exposed to the issues in order to overcome them. However, forcing them to do it on their own when they are personally unable to handle the content isn’t safe. Exposure therapy is done gradually and with the help of a therapist who knows how to help the person if things escalate, get overwhelming, etc. That helps the person to learn their fears are irrational or unlikely to actually come true. But if individuals try to do that kind of thing on their own, it can go very, very poorly because they don’t have a trained professional helping them through it so if they feel overwhelmed or afraid, they may not know how to handle the situation and it can end up making their mental health worse. And exposure therapy does nothing for people with depression who might read about self-harm or suicide, become triggered, and then hurt themselves. Of course people with mental illnesses should get professional help, but we have to also keep in mind that psychological services are very inaccessible for a lot of people whether that’s because of issues with health insurance, a lack of available providers, etc. So while the long term goal should absolutely be that these individuals get help and stop avoiding the things that cause such negative reactions, in the short term this may not be possible for them and I think we should do what we can to make sure their mental health is not unnecessarily harmed. I don’t think I have ever seen a warning for graphic content in a book and blurbs don’t tell you everything that will come up in the story – I’ve read books where issues like suicide seem to come out of nowhere which could be really dangerous for someone who is suicidal. So basically I think that trigger warnings can help in the short term especially for people who currently are unable to get professional help.

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      • Thanks for your reply- that’s interesting. I am aware of how exposure therapy works. This is not a question of forcing people to be exposed to things that trouble them, but rather not encouraging avoidance. It is actually impossible to avoid all exposure, regardless of safeguards, and this will only make it harder when one encounters something far more insignificant (again, Basoglu says the opposite about people working on this on their own). And yes, exposure therapy does not apply to depression, because they do not experience the same symptoms, which is why it is illogical to apply the same solution. As you said, doing these things without a mental health professional is inadvisable- so too applying psychological theory to a wider audience would be inadvisable as the consequences cannot be measured and if anything it is suggested this worsens symptoms. I’ve seen them- sometimes on YA, NA, or literary fiction for instance. But I believe we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Thanks anyway for your time! Again, hope you didn’t mind my commenting.

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  10. Amazing post, Kourtni. I really don’t understand why books can’t have warnings the same way movies ect. do? There’s no real reason there can’t be a page at the front of the book that’s like “Trigger warning for: rape, suicide” ect. The spoiler argument is the worst because how can people put that above other’s potentially being harmed? I’m okay with most things, but sometimes being caught off guard with self-harm can really push me back so it’s always nice to get a heads up.

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  11. Don’t many books that include this kind of content already have it in the blurb though? I’m thinking of YA specifically, but in my experience, it’s often known up-front when a book might contain violence, sexual assault, etc. I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, it can definitely be a spoiler, but on the other, it’s not fair to trigger someone just because others are worried about ruining the story for themselves.

    However, I do think there are cases where the trigger warning would be more of a spoiler than others. For example, everyone knows Thirteen Reasons Why is about suicide. It is included in the blurb and it is a key plot point from the start of the story. However, there are other books I’ve read where a character’s death by suicide is meant to come as a shock. Putting a trigger warning in that case could detract from the impact of the story. I’m not saying to put people’s enjoyment of a book ahead of other people’s well-being, but I can see why there might be complaints.

    Also, I just wanted to add that even people who are do not have mental health concerns and are not survivors of assault can sometimes be triggered (although it’s probably not the same). I read a book earlier this year that had a fairly graphic description of a teenage girl being raped by another character, and I reacted so strongly to that chapter that I seriously considered not reading the rest of the book. I have never been assaulted myself, but the scene made me feel so sick and scared. The talents of a good author, I guess. In that specific case, it was known upfront from the blurb that the book would include sexual assault so it wasn’t a surprise — but the impact of that scene was definitely a shock!

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    • There are a lot of books where topics that can be triggering come up out of nowhere and are not mentioned in the blurb. There have been many times where I’ve been reading a book that has nothing to do with mental health and yet there’s a scene that talks about or describes suicide or self-harm, both of which can be very triggering for people. Of course there are blurbs that make it pretty obvious that certain topics will come up, but there are still a lot of times where these kinds of things come up very unexpectedly. As far as suicide coming as a shock and therefore being a spoiler, I think this is just really insensitive in general and should be avoided. Mental health problems, in my opinion, shouldn’t be used as a plot twist. It treats something that real people struggle with as shocking rather than as a serious topic. And if someone who has dealt with suicidal ideation unexpectedly comes across a scene with suicide, it might make them relapse and could lead them to make an attempt. I think it’s irresponsible to risk that just because people don’t want to be spoiled for what happens in the book. Like I said in my post, you can include trigger warnings without it spoiling things that happen in the book. If you put them in a separate section so that people who want to avoid any semblance of a spoiler don’t stumble across them, that still makes the warnings accessible for those who need them. That’s a win-win situation if you ask me. And I know that people other than trauma survivors or those who are mentally ill can be triggered. I just focused on these groups since they’re more likely to be sensitive to these types of things than the general population. But certainly, anyone can come across something that really affects them, especially if the depiction is very graphic and/or unexpected.

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      • Actually, I didn’t see the part of your post where you mentioned the trigger warning would be in it’s own section. That’s a good idea, so it’s there if you want but easy not to see if you don’t want it.

        However, I don’t agree that issues such as suicide or self-harm showing up unexpectedly is necessarily insensitive. I agree that mental health problems shouldn’t be made light of, but to say that more difficult topics should never be used as a plot twist doesn’t seem right to me either. I think it comes too close to censorship if we try to avoid potentially triggering topics. I see your point about them being an issue for people who have suffered from those issues themselves, but I also think it is very important for mental health and suicide to be represented among other possible storylines. The reality is that people do suffer from mental health conditions and some people do have suicidal ideation. Avoiding these topics in a book because we worry about triggering people can lead to these topics being glossed over and not represented well or at all. These are both issues that have affected people very close to me, so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m being insensitive toward suicide or mental illness.

        Putting a trigger warning is a good first step, but I can also see situations where it might detract from the impact of a book.

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      • Honestly, I just think the best course of action is to put the trigger warnings in a separate section so that they’re accessible for those who want to read them, but people who worry that they’ll spoil the books don’t have to read them. 😛
        I’m definitely not saying that mental health shouldn’t be talked about at all, but I do think that using mental health issues as shock value often (not always) ends up being insensitive. I don’t know quite how to explain it thoroughly 😛

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      • I think I see what you mean about the shock value. I also was having trouble explaining what I meant properly. I don’t even know if “shock value” is the right way to phrase it, even if the scene comes as a surprise.

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