Trigger warnings get a lot of flack. I started seeing them show up around the internet before I had any clue about what they were or why they existed.

They’re often used on social media with the abbreviation “TW” to designate that what follows may include triggering content. More on how they’re used later.

I’ve never seen them explained, though I have seen them mocked a whole lot. I have to admit, there was a time not too long ago that I mocked them, too. Because I didn’t understand them.

After building more context with online communities that use trigger warnings to great effect, I’ve learned a lot about them that, if I’d known earlier, would have stopped me from judging them.

They’re a powerful tool for being compassionate to vulnerable people.

Trigger warnings are about preserving hope

If you live a painful life, it’s vital to foster a sense of hope that one day, it’s possible for things to get better. It’s this hope that keeps you going.

If you lose this hope, you break down. Especially for folks whose lives are excruciating, a loss of hope means there’s nothing left to make life feel worth it.

For marginalized people, there’s such an abundance of evidence that life can only be hell for us that we live in a precarious balance. Every splinter of hope has to be brutally fought for. And there are countless things that are clamoring to take it away.

Sometimes, the stories we share with each other—especially if we’re talking about bad things that are happening—can be the tipping points where people in pain lose hope.

Trigger warnings are compassionate to this problem. They’re an attempt to help people preserve the hope they’ve fought so hard to hold onto.

An example of how this works

Let’s say I were to share a news story about someone who committed sexual assault and got away with it.

There are people in my life who have been sexually assaulted, and never felt safe to even tell people it happened until years later—because they knew the man who assaulted them would get away with it.

These people have suffered an incredible amount. A thing that can help them heal is building up a sense of hope that the world is going to change, and we’re going to stop treating sexual assault like it’s in any way acceptable. And maybe one day they can feel safe that it won’t happen to them again, and maybe it won’t keep happening to other people the way it happened to them.

Seeing a story like this can crush those hopes, because it provides evidence for the idea that sexual assault is something we as a society are not committed to stopping. It’s still happening the way it happened to them. Not only that, but it can tripwire the nightmarish process of re-living the assault that they went through years ago, and send them into a spiral of fear that it will happen again.

If I were to share that news article, the considerate thing to do on behalf of my friends who have suffered like this would be to warn them about the content that was about to follow, and allow them to knowingly choose whether or not to read it based on how they are feeling.

Trigger warning vs. content warning vs. content notice

There are three levels of trigger warnings I’ve seen used on different media, at different levels of intensity.

Trigger warnings (usually abbreviated to TW) are used regarding content that might evoke and make someone relive a traumatic experience. This is the most intense warning level.

Content warnings (usually abbreviated to CW) are used when sensitive subjects are discussed, like misgendering, racism, or homophobia. This way anyone dealing with PTSD or being marginalized in their everyday life can know what they’re getting themselves into before reading.

Content notices (usually abbreviated to CN) are used when you want to courteously make note of subjects you’ve mentioned that might have trauma associated with them for people. This is the most broad and casual level.

Usually each of these abbreviations is followed by a short list that flags any of the subjects people should be alerted to. When I share this article to social media, I might flag it like so:

CW: mention of sexual assault

Trigger warnings aren’t required; they’re just a way to be kind

You might feel overwhelmed at the amount of considerations there are to make toward other people. That’s fair. It’s overwhelming. People have been through a lot of painful things, and it’s painful and challenging to understand it and integrate it into how you engage with the world.

Also, the amount of compassion it’s possible to show our fellow humans is infinite. It’s not like you just “arrive” one day at being fully compassionate.

I don’t intend for this post to be about more rules that you now need to follow.

I’ve come to find trigger warnings, content warnings, and content notices to be helpful tools in my own attempts to be more compassionate. This post is here to share those tools with anyone who wants to use them.

And if you do, thanks.