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Triggers are things that cause a strong, heavy emotional and often physical response in a person. These usually occur after something traumatic has happened to them. The term originated with doctors treating war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, and is often used by fandom in the labeling or discussion of fanworks.

Triggering material has the potential not only to remind a person of a traumatic event, but to make them feel they are experiencing it again, in detail. [1][2] [3] Some common experiences that can be later subject to triggers include sexual assault, physical or emotional abuse, phobias, self-harm, and addiction. Visual media such as vids and animated gifs may also require warning for physical triggers. Quick cuts and flashing lights, for instance, may trigger seizures or migraine headaches. [4]

Trigger has also come to have a colloquial meaning; anything that one dislikes or is squicked by, or that causes an angry or annoyed reaction or any negative emotion. There are also positive triggers, awakening pleasant memories. Marcel Proust famously told a story of eating a "madeleine [cookie] dipped in limeflower tea" that revived happy childhood experiences with his aunt.[5]

Triggers and trigger warnings can be a controversial topic. (People who don't warn, people who demand warnings the author doesn't agree with, people who don't believe in triggers, people who don't want to be responsible for another person's mental well-being, people who want to be responsible for their own mental well-being, "how do you survive in the real world if you're such a delicate snowflake," the misuse of the term, etc.)

In response, some fans include a warning policy on their journals or archives stating what, if anything, they warn for. Some authors who don't include warnings invite potential readers to contact them directly for more detailed information about a story if they are concerned about potentially triggering content.


Content warnings have been common in media for decades: public television's "viewer discretion is advised," radio and television journalism's "some of what you're about to hear/see is graphic," and various music, TV and film labeling.

A trigger, by that name, is a psychiatric term for sensory input of any kind that sets off disturbing memories or emotions. It was originally applied to war veterans, later to other clients who had, or were believed to have, repressed memories of severe early childhood abuse. The purpose of therapy was to recover these memories and process them in an atmosphere of trust. This "recovery movement" in psychiatry began in the mid-1980s; it is controversial, with many adherents and detractors.

People undergoing this therapy congregated on bulletin board systems pre-Internet to share experiences.[6] [7] It was probably on one of these forums that trigger warnings first appeared. Usenet discussion groups, notably alt.sexual.abuse.recovery and and the Internet Relay Chat channels #asar2, #dissoc, etc., associated with them, employed and enforced trigger warnings along with "spoiler space". Certain words were forbidden unless a star or "splat" blotted out certain vowels so that the actual words were not seen. There were constant lengthy discussions, often involving vituperative language, refractive accusations and dogpiling, about who had triggered whom and which members were "unsafe".[8] Some members became impatient with this system and formed other groups such as alt.abuse.transcendence, and its IRC channel #aat, with fewer or no such restrictions. You went in there knowing difficult matters would be discussed openly and frankly. However, this also could create problems in terms of a few members using the less defined protocols as an excuse to again bully and dogpile onto others.

Use of the term "triggered" to mean "any negative thought or reaction" also dates back to the 1980s and may have originated with doctors in the recovery movement as they sought to identify clients' painful memories.

History in Fandom

When the concept of triggers entered media fandom is not clear. Some fanzines would often provide brief summaries of stories. Death stories were particularly identified in ad listings or flyers. Adult material usually required an age statement. Go to the warnings section for an in-depth discussion the history of warnings in fandom.

One early use of the term was on in 1998: "I do not like rape stories. I do not read them. Luckily, they do not trigger me (though I'm sure they do others), but I don't like them. I would like to have been warned about this before I started." [9]

In 2000, fans on mailing lists were discussing triggers and how to alert readers to possible triggering content.

"I tend to argue passionately in favor of no warnings, or generalized warnings...and warn more specifically anyway. But I'm never sure where the line is. If I have a story that's got no "obvious" triggers (rape, incest, death, etc.) but the lead character is, say, a bigoted asshole, do I warn people that his attitudes are offensive? Or if I'm writing from the perspective of a mentally ill character, do I warn people that *that* might upset them (and yes, both of these examples are taken from stuff I've actually written in other fandoms). I mean, I know for a fact that that *would* wreck the story for many folks out there. Is it common courtesy, or is it political correctness? Where's the line?"[10]

In 2014, a writer for the Buzzfeed online journal wrote an article about the history of trigger warnings and touched briefly on the use of the phrase in media fandom. She traces an early use to 2002 on Livejournal. She distinguishes the phrase "trigger" from the broader and more general usage of "warning" although acknowledges the two often are used together interchangeably.

Awareness of the term and its meaning grew in livejournal fanworks fandom. In the late 2000s, there were several rounds of trigger warning debates; see Trigger Warning Debate (2009) and Vividcon/Vividcon_2010#The_Debate. As of 2011, much attention was devoted to triggers and trigger warnings (see, for example, the numerous rants at FFR about the lack of trigger warnings and/or the wrong kind of warnings).

The Differences Between Triggers and Squicks

Squick is a fun term that was often used as both a noun and a verb. Either X was one of your squicks, or X squicked you, or squicked you out, or squicked you hard. It was often used in fic exchanges. They would ask for a list of your squicks so that the gifting author would know not to include any hint of them. It was also used in casual conversation with fandom friends, authors, artists, etc. It could be left in comments, or as a reason you just didn’t read your best fandom friend’s latest fic. “Sorry, bff, you know I love your writing, but you have X tagged at the top, and that just squicks me out.” “Hey, no worries, best reader friend! I totally get it. Give this one a pass, but I’ll send you a note when I post my next one! I promise it will be totally X-free! ”Here’s the thing though. In your example, you explain why X is your squick with Y. But the beauty of squick was that (at least in my experience) no explanation was necessary. Not only was it not necessary, it was rarely asked for. A squick is a squick, and there doesn’t have to be any rhyme or reason. In fact, why would you have a rational, bullet-pointed, well-thought-out argument as to why something squicked you out? Very often it’s a visceral reaction, and if you don’t like the thing, you’re likely not going to sit and do deep meditation on why not. Squicks were respected by fandom. You don’t like the thing, okay, we will tag the thing appropriately, you do not have to read the thing, no judgments on either side. There was no fandom policing, only respect. And this, I think, is super important, because fandom policing is a problem, especially when it comes to triggers. “Trigger” has become so overused, so all-encompassing, that people feel they have to defend their legitimate triggers. If X triggers you, it triggers you, and you DO NOT need to provide an explanation. But because “trigger” is so often used in place of “squick,” some people feel they have the right to “call out” those who use the word. They want explanations, they want you to tell them what that triggering concept does to you, so they can call bullshit and feel superior. You don’t have to explain either your squicks or your triggers, but using the correct word stops the fandom police from feeling as though they have the right to ask. Bring “squick” back, people. Don’t devalue triggers, which are horrible, nasty, dangerous things. [11]

Further Reading


  1. ^ I would like to talk with ya’ll about trigger warnings. (Accessed June 25, 2011)
  2. ^ Native American poet Edward Ramon has written about his and others' PTSD experiences from a spiritual perspective in PBS' Vietnam Stories Since the War (Sept. 21, 1997) (and see the comments).
  3. ^ A famous example from an early documentary on "Vietnam Veterans Syndrome" included a soldier who described being instantly transported back to Vietnam for a second or two, almost physically, by the sight of a car parked under a tree and partly obscured by leaves and branches; he knew it was an enemy tank, even though he could still rationalize that this was impossible.
  4. ^ "Dennō Senshi Porygon", a 1997 episode of the original Pokemon on Japanese television, included visual effects that triggered physical reactions including epileptic seizures. The incident went viral, has gone into urban legend and was parodied in other series.
  5. ^ "I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses... immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents ... and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray [village] and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea." Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (Grasset-Gallimard, 1913).
  6. ^ Mainframe computer systems such as PLATO, which was available on college campuses, had discussion boards and chat rooms as early as 1974. (See Brian Dear's The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture.
  7. ^ Commercial and amateur bulletin board systems, expressly intended to offer these features to the public outside of universities, became available in the late 1970s and formed the online service market that lasted into the 1990s. See John Markoff's Sound Bytes; An Electronic Salon, in N.Y. (New York Times, March 27, 1994), which describes the famous Echo BBS.
  8. ^ alt.sexual.abuse.recovery (now alt.sexual.abuse.recovery.moderated) was one of the most notorious "safe spaces" at Usenet for this kind of behaviour: see NO CARRIER, post by Tina Sikorski on 1995-01-07., which was meant to serve abuse survivors with multiple personalities, was little better, especially after it became known that psychiatrists posing as ordinary members were trolling the group.
  9. ^ NEW While We Burned by MulderPhile (NC-17, MS) 1/1), October 4, 1998
  10. ^ post to the Bindlestitch mailing list dated May 14, 2000, quoted anonymously with permission.
  11. ^ The madness of me (How was squick used? Like would you tag something...), Archived version (2016)