The divisive science of Trigger Warnings


Trigger Warnings (TW for short) are a special type of warning at the beginning of an article, video, or blog that states the potential trauma and emotional distress its content can bring to the viewer. They have become commonplace, almost a staple of the digital and publishing world. Their main use, however, the fact alone that you clicked on this article with this very title, counteracts the point of trigger warnings altogether. And do not worry, no Trigger Warning is needed for what follows. 

The existence and, most importantly, the study of trigger warnings is nothing new and has been looked into by huge research centers, like those of Harvard, Waterloo, and Nottingham, as early as 2016. Research findings showed that about half of all US teachers and professors use trigger warnings to warn students that certain class content might be potentially upsetting to certain students, especially if they have experienced past trauma, and they still remain supportive of them despite the fact that they have an admittedly little positive or negative impact on the attending students. 

Various Harvard studies have proved that the results are the same for those receiving and those not receiving warnings for potentially upsetting content. “Participants who were warned that they were about to watch graphic footage or read a graphic story felt just as badly as those who were not warned. They had a similar number of intrusive thoughts afterward. Seeing a trigger warning only slightly decreased the participants’ attempts to avoid thinking about the graphic material.” The authors of the research argue that trigger warnings should not be condemned as there is no harm in maintaining them, but they might be part of what is disturbing college students’ mental health. “College students are increasingly anxious … and widespread adoption of trigger warnings in syllabi may promote this trend, tacitly encouraging students to turn to avoidance, thereby depriving them of opportunities to learn healthier ways to manage potential distress,” they write. 

An even more recently published Harvard study had participants read passages from the literary texts Moby Dick (Herman Melville) and Crime & Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky) that included scenes that can be classified as triggering. Half of the participants that were exposed to a trigger warning before reading the sensitive passage were rated as more vulnerable to developing PTSD and, in general, were found to exhibit increased anxiety. The authors of that study accept, however, the limitation that the evidence was conducted with members of the general public and not specifically with traumatized individuals with diagnosed cases of PTSD or any other kind of trauma. 

Even taking this limitation into account, the evidence of the potential harm of trigger warnings does not stop there. Even years after the so-called “Year of the Trigger Warning” (2013), the results suggest that TWs can actually generate anxiety and PTSD as well as reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as a central part of their identity, hence making them counterproductive. In spite of the well-meaning incentives of everyone who used and continues to use trigger warnings, it is still not the best way to protect someone from having intrusive thoughts, negative feelings, or potential flashbacks after engaging in triggering content of any intensity. By some measures, what TWs can potentially achieve is essentially insignificant compared to the effects of actual therapy. “In other words, if you feel you need a trigger warning, maybe what you really need is better medical care,” explains Richard McNally, a Harvard psychologist, in a 2016 New York Times article. 

So what is the verdict? Should we stop using trigger warnings altogether, or could they be maintained as a signal that you are attending a space where mental health needs are respected and considered? Different people have different psychological limits, ones that we cannot, as a whole, always be able to identify or avoid crossing before it is too late. The truth is that there are still questions that need to be answered, research that needs to be done, and so on and so forth. What is certain is that by making trigger warnings such a prominent and significant part of pop culture we shed so much light on trauma, PTSD, and its influence and end up overemphasizing its importance in someone’s life. Even I, someone with no diagnosed PTSD or trauma of any kind, become so wary whenever I see a TW and I find myself asking in my head “am I triggered by this? Do I find this disturbing? Would I be concerned about this if not for the trigger warning?” 

Furthermore, until science can provide us with clear-cut results and information on the actual impact of trigger warnings, let’s keep them in our minds and media more as a reminder that any person can be carrying various triggers and traumas. Keeping in mind that we are not responsible for everyone’s mental health, meaning that we should stop overestimating these warnings. There is a fine line between fixation and ignorance, and when that is applied to PTSD, trauma, anxiety, or generally in the field of mental health, only trained professionals might be able to help each one of us find that silver lining. 

Featured cover image: Unsplash

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