This page is an overview of the concept of "triggers," for those who want to know more about triggering in a meta sense for their own writing or for understanding the concept of triggering in Real Life to some extent. If you want to see ONLY fictional examples, please go to Trigger.
Do not put trigger warnings on any All The Tropes pages other than Fan Fic Recommendations. Works that have full pages should already indicate the existence of triggering content in the description or trope list in a natural way, and a trope's description should be a good indication of whether or not there will be any significant triggering content in its examples.
In the broadest sense, a trigger is an experience that reliably provokes a particular response from a person, regardless of context. Stories generally try to provoke responses somehow, but the fact that a Tear Jerker successfully jerked your tears doesn't mean you've been triggered per se. If you wanted to, you could re-read and analyze the story until you got thoroughly bored of it; whereas if it triggered you, it would be impractical or impossible to get used to it. Even if it takes a while to become fully inured, you will tend to get more comfortable with the story as you study it, and your responses will change accordingly.
Genuine triggers provoke the same response, time after time, however familiar the trigger should be. Strictly speaking, they can change over time, but they do so at an imperceptible pace; they sometimes return at full strength without warning; and they are unlikely to ever fully vanish, even if they get small enough to control.
Suicide is a very difficult topic to deal with both in Real Life and in media. Unfortunately, some depressed or suicidal (or recovering) people can become triggered by some explorations of depression, suicide, and hopelessness. Due to the seriousness of this trigger, it is good Netiquette and being a decent human being to offer at least some warning of suicide, of ruminations on suicide and suicidality, or on things that are guaranteed to be severely depressing and bring out such emotions. It doesn't even have to be a label or note, just an R-Rated Opening or blurb can suffice.
(A fairly good example of how not to properly handle suicide triggers is found in the marketing and promotion around the film Seven Pounds as well as the writing of it. With a "purposeful suicide" as the main plot point, woe be to anyone with suicide triggers who didn't check the spoilers or talk to someone who had seen it first.)
Depiction of the death of a loved one and its related grief and loss is a big one here - it rides the line between suicide trigger and PTSD trigger, depending on how badly someone has been personally impacted by these things. (Of course, it could also just be a Berserk Button if the person who reads it finds the experience nothing like theirs or insulting to theirs). Nevertheless, this also needs to be directly warned for because of its suicidality risk.
Seizure triggers are far more rare but are the other type of trigger that can cause direct harm: the viewing of a pattern or flashing lights or colors will induce an epileptic seizure in a small segment of the population, which may be life-threatening. The only people who intentionally post these with the intent of causing a seizure are Trolls, though inadvertent posting of a seizure-inducing video or image can occasionally happen when the poster doesn't live with epilepsy (or with epilepsy triggered by visual imagery) and isn't aware that the image or video could have that effect. Normally, if you are posting a video with flashing lights or colors (or extremely fast movement or dizzying patterns) it is seen as good Netiquette to post a seizure trigger warning and avoid autoplay.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very complicated mental injury beyond the scope of All The Tropes in and of itself, but one interaction between PTSD and fiction is the concept of the PTSD trigger. Someone suffering from PTSD may be triggered by many things - and sometimes, sadly, some things in fiction may induce this trigger response. Someone who has been triggered by a trigger may go through more emotional discomfort than fiction is supposed to produce, physical discomfort, terror and depression beyond what the story was supposed to induce, flashbacks to their experience of the traumatic event, or even a full Heroic BSOD or Freak-Out.
The (very simplified) difference between Squick and a PTSD trigger is this: Squick is staring at a fictional disemboweled corpse and going "Ewww, I didn't need to see that." A trigger is staring at the same corpse and feeling oneself being disemboweled and tortured to death in Real Life or else remembering the Real Life disembowelment and torture of your best friend next to you. Triggers may be described as hyper-personalized Squick meets hyper-personalized High Octane Nightmare Fuel.
Note that some fiction (as well as some non-fiction documentaries) deliberately include probable PTSD triggers in hopes of getting those who are not triggered by them to at least get a hint of what the trauma is like. For some events, you have to choose between a trigger or The Theme Park Version.
Some PTSD triggers are neither Squick nor High Octane Nightmare Fuel. They may even be Nightmare Retardant to anyone but the triggered individual. For some, a white sheet on a bed or hearing a sob can be a trigger.
That said, there are some common (though by no means universal) triggers for PTSD survivors that it is generally considered good Netiquette to warn for in media (of course there are exceptions). These are:
- ANYTHING in the Abuse Tropes or Rape Tropes sections (the sections themselves may trigger PTSD for Domestic Abuse, rape, or sexual abuse victims)
- Lolicon, Shotacon, Parental Incest, Brother-Sister Incest, Twincest, and Incest Is Relative. Any of these can be triggers for PTSD for rape and sexual abuse victims, and a Berserk Button as well.
- Depiction, especially in a favorable light, of brainwashing-or More Than Mind Control type techniques, specifically in the sense of cult-like thought-reform, be they used by actual cult members in the story or inadvertently by designated love interests. These can be major triggers for some people who have been victims of Domestic Abuse or of abusive religious groups.
- Depiction of the Apocalypse or similar The End of the World as We Know It tropes or theories, which can be triggering for people who were traumatized from being brainwashed into believing that the end of the world as we know it was imminently due.
- Depiction of a number of debilitating diseases such as AIDS and cancer (trigger for people who are either current or past sufferers, or people who know/knew someone who has)
- Any form of graphic violence, which can be PTSD trigger for someone who has been assaulted or in combat or who survived abuse.
- Highly intense emotional scenes, especially with an undercurrent of threatening or intimidation.
- Depictions of Domestic Abuse and its subtropes, which can be a PTSD trigger and/or Berserk Button for victims of abuse)
- Political, religious, racial, or sexual content, especially that of a very aggressive or insulting nature, can trigger PTSD. It can also hit several of the triggers described below on the way.
- War depictions/combat/military-related depictions or tropes, which can trigger combat-related PTSD
- The Screaming Woman
There are also triggers for negative behavior that can cause a relapse of the condition itself, such as addictions or other negative behaviors. The difference between Squick and a negative behavioral trigger is that with these triggers, the response is not comparable to being squicked. Instead, the response is pleasurable but unwanted/dangerous to the individual and may risk their recovery from an addiction or a pattern of compulsive behavior. For example, seeing someone smoking makes someone who has recently quit smoking crave another cigarette, or seeing a depiction of bulimia may make someone want to binge and purge again; and going to a restaurant and being seated too close to the bar is often torture for a recovering alcoholic.
Some common (though by no means universal) triggers for negative behavior or addictions are generally considered good Netiquette to warn for in media (of course there are exceptions). These are:
- Political, religious, racial, or sexual content, especially that of a very aggressive or insulting nature.
- Self-injury, self-mutilation, or extreme masochism. These can trigger self-injury and injury avoidance OCD.
- Use of alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs, especially if it's a major story or character element. You probably don't need to warn for these if they're passing references or if the nature of the story itself serves as a warning for them (for example, in a noir or a story set in the 1950s, Everybody Smokes and the Hard-Drinking Tropes are understood to be part of the territory)
- Depiction of anorexia, bulimia, or extreme body negativity. These can trigger eating disorders.
- Depiction of or ability to engage in games of chance/LevelGrinding. These can be a trigger for gambling or MMORPG addicts.
Hybrid PTSD and addiction and negative behavior triggers
A hybrid type of both PTSD and negative behavioral triggers is where the trigger produces stress which may or may not be related to PTSD, but it is an unpleasant stimulus that leads to negative behavior rather than an obvious Heroic BSOD or Freak-Out. This type of trigger is more commonly depicted in media and has its own trope, I Need a Freaking Drink, except substitute whatever the person relies on for "drink."
Anger triggers, while somewhat less potent in most cases, are more commonly depicted in media and have their own trope, the Berserk Button.
Triggering overlaps with Too Soon (when an event such as a national disaster or extreme crime makes the mention of it or anything reminding of it triggering to a large amount of people, see the Nuclear Weapons Taboo for a specific example also) as well as Dude, Not Funny. Playing with known triggers, however, is a large element of Dead Baby Comedy and Crossing the Line Twice.
Moral Guardians and the Bluenose Bowdlerizer tend to assume that nearly everyone and anyone under a certain age automatically suffer from being triggered and often use this as a part of New Media Are Evil and You Can Panic Now, which often leads to people assuming the legitimately triggered are in league with them - which is not the truth, for the most part. A legitimately triggered person merely wants to be warned of and avoid the triggering content, while Moral Guardians or the Bluenose Bowdlerizer are actively opposed to its mere existence.
Trolls tend to delight in trying to force people into viewing triggering content on shock sites or by posting nonexistent or misleading warnings. A Flame War can erupt when a Fanfic writer or New Media artist refuses to provide proper warnings as warning for triggers is considered proper Netiquette and knowingly forcing someone to view them is considered Trolling, yet at the same time some people are genuinely unaware of the concept. Internet Backdraft often results when the necessity of trigger warnings itself becomes a debate.