Trigger warnings

As far as I am aware, the concept of a “trigger” originates with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – certain images, topics, smells etc. can trigger flashbacks from the traumatic event(s). As awareness of this concept has increased, so has the use of the phrase “trigger warning”. This is typically used at the beginning of an online post that contains content that could trigger flashbacks.

Over time the phrase has been used more and more, to cover a whole range of things that might upset readers. This has made me think about the OCD triggers that I live with. Some of these are recent, and others have been present most of my life. All of the triggers are connected to my deepest fears, which I discussed in more detail in earlier posts.

Some of my personal OCD triggers include:

  • the colour red
  • the colour white
  • the colour yellow/cream (I don’t have this so much now but it used to represent cancer)
  • marks on the floor
  • stepping up or down, stairs
  • the number 6
  • the number 3
  • hearing someone else use “bad” language – this inevitably happens with any word that is or could be used as an insult. Sometimes it is ridiculous – words like “bum” or “poo”, or hearing the word “country” (because it has a bad word within it).
  • left
  • right
  • Christian language – words and phrases

Having OCD often means living with these OCD triggers, in a world that wouldn’t even conceive of them as problematic. My OCD triggers are pretty much always there – you can’t escape the colour red or change the language people use. Even when I have my eyes closed I am aware of left and right.

OCD connections to numbers and colours are pretty common, but they vary between people – a friend with OCD once told me the colour green was “unsafe” for her. For me green is one of the only “safe” colours. The colour blue and the number 2 are “safe” for me – blue is my favourite colour and 2 features prominently in my date of birth. I assume this is why OCD designated them as “safe” when it first began to emerge.

People with OCD aren’t considered when people write their trigger warnings. In many ways this is how it should be – avoiding OCD triggers tends to increase their power. Also, OCD triggers vary so much between people that it would be impossible to cater for all of us – everything would need to come with a trigger warning!

In light of this I usually save the phrase “trigger warning” for PTSD-related contexts. I’m not an expert on PTSD but I know that sexual and physical violence are often at the root of PTSD, so posts about these topics should come with a trigger warning. For other topics which might be upsetting I prefer the term “content note”, with one or two words about the potentially upsetting content. That way it’s possible for people to make their own decision about whether to read the post, but it maintains the original flashback-focused meaning of the “trigger warning” itself.


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