Trigger Warnings and OCD

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Trigger warnings–those notices you may see before an article with upsetting information–can serve a helpful purpose in some situations. Abuse victims or people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be triggered by graphic sexual or violent content or imagery, and with “trigger warning” they can choose to stop reading.

I see trigger warnings on a lot of OCD support pages, too, and although they’re posted with only the very best intentions–to save readers from hurt and pain–I don’t think they’re necessarily appropriate for those of us with OCD. Just a few weeks ago someone recommended the fantastic book The Imp of the Mind by Lee Baer, which is all about taboo intrusive thoughts, and a woman commented that the book contains lots of triggers. Yes, it does! But it also contains invaluable information that helps push people toward recovery.

Life is a trigger for OCD. And avoiding situations that may trigger obsessions or compulsions is in itself a compulsion. The reason exposure and response prevention therapy is so effective is that it includes triggers–of course, they’re introduced gradually. When my obsessions were at their very worst, everything was a trigger. It was unbelievably painful. I tried so hard to avoid anything that might make me think what I desperately didn’t want to think, and that made it all worse. I couldn’t just stop going to the grocery store. I couldn’t stop going to work. I couldn’t stay in my apartment every day. My comfort zone became smaller and smaller until I realized I didn’t need a trigger to think a bad thought. It was all already there in my head, in my psyche. I had to stop trying to hide from the torture that was coming from within and learn how to face it.

Believe it or not, the Internet wasn’t as ubiquitous back when I struggled so much with my obsessions as it is now. More specifically, social media hadn’t yet exploded, and you didn’t see people on their smartphones and tablets everywhere you looked. It’s such a part of daily life now that I think it’s important to realize you may run across something upsetting while you’re browsing. If you get too accustomed to trigger warnings, you may start to avoid everything that has one. I hate to use the term “slippery slope,” but I do think it could be an issue here.

A few months ago I shared an article about Maria Bamford, a comedian who has OCD. One of my readers said the article caused her anxiety and she thought maybe she wouldn’t click on anything related to OCD anymore. My concern, which I shared with her, was that the article could have had a title like “Comedian Loves Making People Laugh at Home and at Work” and happen to contain lots of information about her OCD symptoms. If this reader of mine decided to start avoiding the obvious, like this article that was actually titled “The Weird, Scary, and Ingenious Brain of Maria Bamford,” then she may start to avoid the innocuous, just in case that contained triggers as well. And so on and so on.

Let me know what you think. I know this is a tricky topic, and I’m glad to engage in a discussion about it.

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8 responses »

    • Hi, Angela! Yes, you are. I felt terrible that what I posted had upset you, by the way. I had to think about it for a while, because the last thing I ever want to do on my page is make anyone feel worse. I’m glad you told me how it made you feel. Take care!

  1. I do and don’t agree. I have been doing ERP for a couple of months now, and I have seen an improvement through facing my triggers. However, the nice thing about ERP, both homework and in a session, is that it’s controlled. Life isn’t, and I get that, but like a lot of people in ERP, I’m addressing some of my worst obsessions and it’s exhausting. I know avoidance may slow my progress, but it’s nice to know that when I go home after being out in the real world, where I’m forcing myself to face a lot of these things, I can go online and have a couple of hours where I only have to deal with my obsessions if I feel up to it, and that I can work myself up to it instead of being blindsided.

    And back when I didn’t know I had OCD, and it was suggested I look into it, I found trigger warnings very comforting because I had absolutely no idea how to deal with my obsessions, and getting set off could be a terrifying, monthslong ordeal.

    So I definitely agree that we shouldn’t use them as an excuse to entirely avoid things that make us uncomfortable, but I think they can still be helpful, for those of us who are just beginning to learn how to cope, or who haven’t even started yet. Some days things are just too raw and you need a break, but you still want to read about OCD or talk to people who understand so you feel less alone. For me, just knowing a blog entry or article might be triggering when I begin reading it is usually enough to keep myself from going over the edge from discomfort and mild anxiety to full-blown obsessing and panic. And if I’ve had an absolutely hideous day and just don’t feel up to it, I can bookmark it and come back in a couple hours or the next day when I’m feeling calmer.

    Sorry, this was sort of long and rambly.

    • Hi, Kyla! Thank you so much for your response, which wasn’t rambly at all. You made very valid points. A good ERP therapist definitely eases the patient into it, and trigger warnings aren’t unlike that. And I definitely don’t recommend seeking out upsetting material on the Internet. I sometimes tell people, “Google is not your friend!”

      You’re so right that the situation is different for people who are just learning to cope. We all need to learn how to deal with triggers eventually, but it does take time for sure. And I can see where it does make sense on OCD pages specifically.

      Congratulations on realizing you have OCD and getting the right help for it. Good luck with ERP!

      • Thank you for the support, and for writing about this. I do think that using trigger warnings as an excuse to avoid them all the time is a bad idea, so I agree with you 100% on that. I agree we need to be very aware of when we’re turning avoiding triggers into a compulsion. I just think it’s okay to take a break here and there so you can regain the strength to fight your OCD as long as it doesn’t become a habit.

  2. Hi Alison, I just stumbled upon your page and wanted to respond. I’m someone with a primarily obsessional form of OCD, and I strongly agree with you: those of us with OCD should NOT ask for or expect trigger warnings. From my perspective, there are two primary reasons for this. The first is the one you flag in your post: we need to expose ourselves to the things we have OCD thoughts about, not avoid them. Although I understand your reader’s point that ERP takes place in a controlled environment, the world at large is not such a place. As you mentioned, life is a trigger for OCD. Unexpected triggers that spike us from stimuli outside ourselves will never disappear, so rather than trying to ask others to minimize them, we help ourselves much more but confronting them when the do arise. Now, I realize this is a lot easier said than done, and I’m by no means a shining example of someone who exposes himself to all his OCD fears. But I’m doing my best, and I think that it would be counterproductive to ask for trigger warnings from others.

    Second, I feel pretty strongly that those of us with OCD have a responsibility to both ourselves and others to not let our condition get in the way of our interactions with other people. In other words, we should not let the fact that we have OCD change the way we expect others to behave around us. The more we ask accommodation from the outside world, the more we let our OCD infringe upon our relationships with others *and* control who *we* are. I’d rather not let it do that to me. By asking others to give us trigger warnings, we’re putting the burden on them to intuit what will and will not spike us. I feel like this request for special accommodation lets OCD have a “win” over us that we should try to deny it.

    I want to reiterate that the points I make are my ideals, and like probably most people with OCD, I don’t live up to my ideals all the time. I *do* ask for reassurance from loved ones sometimes when I’m obsessing over something, even though I know it’s not best to do so. So yeah, I do sometimes let my condition affect my interactions with others. My point is not that I’m somehow better at ERP than everyone else– just that I aspire to do my best and help myself to the greatest extent possible. I feel like trigger warnings will ultimately make that more difficult, so that’s why I think they’re not the best idea.

    • Hi, A.J., thanks for your note! Great points about how our disorder may affect others. While some of that is beyond our control–I’m not perfect, I’ll slip up, I’ll annoy my husband sometimes with my doubt-filled concerns–we can make the conscious choice not to ask others to enable us. I’m almost glad I run into little triggers online a lot because they seem to ease the pain of “real life” triggers, which are still hard nonetheless.

  3. As the founder/owner of my own Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/328418730600461/ and a former admin of another – I agree with Kyla and I don’t think it’s necessarily up to us to ensure that people in support groups are exposed to triggers. I don’t think it’s our place. That’s the place for the therapists office where they are getting that exposure in a controlled environment. Many people who come into support groups are now to OCD and they are looking for a safe environment to out their fears without them being complicated and exacerbated by an entire slew of new ones. This is why though we can’t control triggers and triggers warnings can be seen as a form of reassurance by some – that throwing members of support groups into chaos by increasing their panic doesn’t do the group or the people in it a lot of good. It also speaks to the overall structure and atmosphere of the group – if we have people who are openly talking about their obsessions regarding setting houses on fire and stabbing their families to death and molesting children or raping woman – others with other types of OCD just aren’t going to be willing to put up with that kind of conversation. So, to me, its about where those types of thoughts or talk about them belong. Is this enabling OCD? I don’t think so – because we’re not a therapy group and we can’t offer therapy on FB. We can offer support and encouragement and understanding. On the other hand – so group members sometimes need to discuss things are a big graphic or happen to be a complex or messy social situation. Yes, so the use of trigger warnings gives people an idea as to whether or not what they are coming across might be a bit hard to deal with and they can make that choice or decision as to whether or not they are in that state of recovery to deal with the possible consequences of being upset and then coming under control or whether or not they want to be involved with this person’s ordeal. It’s like a courtesy disclaimer in the middle of the group exchanges. It’s weighing the overall “safety” or atmosphere of the group over the needs of some who may need to have more advanced therapy that we can’t provide.

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