What To Do If You Come Across Something Triggering Online

CW: references to police brutality, suicide, blood and gunshots. 

Last month, I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when I came across a post by model and actress Naomi Campbell. In the wake of the SARS crisis in Nigeria—where people are protesting against a unit of the Nigerian police called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) who have a long record of abuse and police brutality—Campbell shared a video taken from the scene. The video showed a man who had been shot in the head laying on the ground with blood everywhere. There was no disclaimer or unsafe content warning, it was at the top of my IG feed. 

I didn’t want to look at it any longer than I did but the image played in my head far longer than the one second I saw of it. And I’m not alone—Naomi Campbell’s Instagram account is followed by nearly 10 million people. A content warning disclaimer originally existed at the end of the article, hidden behind the “See More” button, before she edited the description and put the content warning at the top. But the impact it had on mine and other viewers’ mental health still stands. 

Earlier this year, a man live-streamed himself self-harming. Footage from the tragic event was wildly shared anonymously across TikTok, Twitter and Facebook. Social media platforms eventually banned it but for a good week struggled to effectively monitor the spread of the video as people were confronted with an incredibly graphic and triggering image. 

So, whether it’s something as traumatic as above or even something that ties into your own triggers, what can you do when you do experience something triggering online? To best understand what we mean by triggering and what to do when you encounter something that triggers you, Syrup spoke with psychologist at The Indigo Project, Patrick Dixon.

What does it mean if something is triggering?

“Triggering is a term used to describe the intensification of an emotion caused by exposure to something that has a powerful effect on our own emotional vulnerability,” Dixon told Syrup. “Certain situations will trigger us more than others due to our personal beliefs, value system, and past experiences.”

“Some things are generally more widely distressing, such as seeing others in pain, people being treated unjustly, and acts of graphic violence or harm. Posts with triggering content can damage our sense of security and disrupt our perception of the world. These shifts can lead to an increase in psychological distress, including the experience of anxious and depressed symptoms.”

What should I do immediately after seeing something triggering online?

“Chat with somebody that you trust, if you are a young person a parent, caregiver, teacher (any trusted adult) is a great starting point,” says Dixon. “Also look at accessing any of the following:

–     eheadspace – 1800 650 890

–     Beyondblue – 1300 22 4636

–     Lifeline – 13 11 14 

–     Kids helpline – 1800 55 1800

–     Mens line – 1300 789 978 

–     Mindspot – 1800 61 44 34

–     Parent line – 1300 30 1300

–     Butterfly Foundation – 1800 151 152

–     Q Life – 1800 184 527

“Linking up with a mental health professional such as a psychologist for ongoing therapy may be necessary as well. Having a chat with your doctor, friends, and family, can be great starting points to make this happen.”

“When seeing your doctor, let them know about the distress you’re experiencing. They will then be able to provide you with a mental health care plan, which will allow you access to a psychologist for a discounted rate through Medicare.”

What are some things I can do to improve my mental well-being after seeing something triggering online?

According to Patrick Dixon, here a few things you should do: 

1.  Have a chat with somebody

2. Explore your emotions and allow yourself to feel what you are feeling. We are creatures of emotion, and feeling difficult emotions is natural. Allowing yourself to identify what you are feeling, where in your body you are feeling the emotion, and why you are feeling it, can normalize and validate your experience. This can help to prevent any extra distress caused and help to facilitate some self-compassion along the way.

3. Self-care: Seeing something triggering is tough, so what better opportunity to do some things that you love to take care of yourself afterwards. Go for a walk, watch some TV, eat your favourite food, spend time with the people in your life who mean the most. These can help to be reminders of the fact that despite the many difficulties in the world, there are also a lot of great things and people as well.

4. Have a chat with a mental health professional: Link in with a psychologist and other mental health supports. Accessing professional support will allow a safe, non-judgmental space to talk freely and process emotions in a healthy way.

And remember, “Be cautious of your online usage and any potential triggering content. Access only trusted sites and communicate with the people you know and the content you are familiar and comfortable with.”

Why are content warnings so important?

“Content warnings are important as they can prevent unnecessary psychological distress,” Dixon tells Syrup. “Content warnings allow potential viewers to know the topic and nature of a post without having to be exposed to the graphic and explicit details.”

What can I do if I think my content might be triggering for another person?

“Putting up an obvious warning at the start of the post can help with content that other people might find distressing. Highlighting the general topic of the content and a label saying that the post may be distressing for some people can be effective in warning others.”

What can social media accounts do to prevent these things from occurring?

“Social media accounts can actively utilise reporting services, practice clarity in the description of their content and provide clear warnings if they have any potentially distressing material on their page.”

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.