Trigger Warnings and OCD

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.