CN: mental illness, PTSD
At the beginning of most of my posts, I’ll be using a note that starts “CN” followed by a list of certain topics and themes. CN stands for Content Note. Here I’m going to talk about what content notes or content warnings are, why I use them, and why I use them as opposed to trigger warnings.
You’ve probably heard of trigger warnings, which have gained a lot of media attention in the past few years particularly in colleges and in online social justice circles. The purpose of trigger warnings is to give a heads up to people that the content they are about to consume includes topics, images, or themes that might be triggering. There’s a variety of interpretations of what “triggering” means or what qualifies as a trigger. The most common one is a trigger for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but there are a number of other mental illnesses and other conditions that have them.
I want to mention up front that I have PTSD from a number of different traumas so this information is informed by my own experience.
In PTSD, a trigger is something that causes traumatic memories to resurface. A trigger can be anything: a smell, an image, a phrase you hear in passing. But if you have PTSD, remembering something traumatic doesn’t just make you feel sad or upset, it can cause flashbacks, panic attacks, full body freezes, or any number of serious physical and mental reactions.
If you’ve never experienced a trigger before, it can be hard to understand the experience. It’s terrible. It can take over all your senses. It can sometimes feel as if you are in the location your trauma is tied to, which can be very scary if a lot of your recovery hinges on the fact that this trauma is no longer happening to you. For me personally, if I experience a bad trigger, it can put me in a bad mental health space for a full week. I feel scared or anxious all day. Sometimes I cry a lot or pull away from people I trust. Even if I have a firm grip on reality and know exactly where I am, I will have the distinct feeling that I am somewhere I am not. And while treatment for PTSD is helpful and often necessary, you can never fully control what things trigger you or what your trigger response is.
Trigger warnings were developed so that people with PTSD could make informed decisions about the content they were consuming. With such serious potential mental and physical consequences, it’s worth it to decide ahead of time if you want to risk going through that, rather than getting blindsided and ending up in a harmful or humiliating situation that is all the more difficult to get out of because you’ve been triggered.
Where To Use Them
Mental health experts recommend using trigger warnings as a precursor to content that contains the most common causes of PTSD. The top two topics are sexual assault and military combat, and many media sources limit their warnings to these two subjects.
But in the last few years, research has come out saying that daily exposure to racism and racial micro-aggressions can cause PTSD in people of color. Similar findings are surfacing about the effects of homophobia on LGB folks, gender non-conforming children are at a higher risk of PTSD than other children, and in a study from 2007, it was shown that women with disabilities experience particularly high rates of traumatic experiences.
This drastically increases the number of topics that would require trigger warnings, and it would be logical to conclude from this list of studies that targeted oppression of any kind can cause PTSD, which is quite a long list of types of people and subjects. These new developments expand the scope of trigger warnings past their original use and application.
Content Notes and My Decision to Use Them
At some point in my research about the efficacy of trigger warnings, I read a recommendation from a mental health professional to use content notes or content warnings instead of trigger warnings. One of the goals of this change in word choice was to emphasize the brevity of the warning. Trigger warnings have gained a reputation as being invasive or tantamount to censorship (though they are neither). A content note is just a subheading that gives a brief info blurb on the nature of the content.
It also occurred to me that when I include a content note in my posts, it’s not just people with mental illnesses that I want to give a heads up to. We live in a culture where public expression of strong emotions is frowned upon, and regardless of whether you have PTSD or not, many of the topics that I write about are upsetting, and reasonably so. I think that everyone, regardless of mental health status, deserves to decide whether they are in a headspace or in an environment where it’s safe for them to delve into something heavy.
For these reasons, I will be including content notes for whatever topics are on my radar as being worthy of a warning.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.