Throughout the past almost two years of the pandemic, mental health awareness has become extremely widespread through the use of social media and due to the depressing nature of the pandemic. In online communities, individuals are making large strives towards being politically correct, enhancing emotional intelligence, and attempting to be sensitive to others, specifically through what are known as “trigger warnings”. Previously, I had only ever seen them used as joke or “meme” material, but with the increasing awareness of mental health, I realized that I should properly educate myself. So what exactly are trigger warnings? Why are they used?
Trigger warnings are warnings that “flag material that might cause distress or discomfort, or possibly trigger a panic attack in students with post-traumatic stress disorder” (3). Originally used online for topics that primarily included sexual assault, the term has now been coined for use with topics that include race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, torture, and other intense subjects (1). In classroom settings, students are encouraged to speak up about triggering topics, but do they even help with preventing stress responses?
On one end of the spectrum, trigger warnings can be seen as keeping others’ best interests in mind, and on the other end, it can be seen as something that does not “give them the freedom to develop their antifragility.” (1). For some students, this might be the case, as some trigger warnings have been shown to increase anxiety and stress responses as opposed to not including one. The most effective treatment for individuals with PTSD is a cognitive behavioral therapy that is trauma-focused. One of the main components of trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy is called exposure therapy, where the individual is exposed to the traumatic event in some capacity to help the individual cope with their trauma and desensitize them to the traumatic event (4). The avoidance of these potentially triggering topics actually can make the stress response worse when the individual is exposed to it and can make intrusive thoughts about the trauma worse (1).
The true nature of trigger warnings, however, is that they are not supposed to prevent students from developing their antifragility by avoidance, but rather strengthen and fine-tune it, with warnings that say to regulate their emotions more with this unpleasant topic that is about to be discussed (1). The adverse of those intended effects have been shown in individuals who are not able to emotionally regulate their stress responses well. In a study in 2019 led by Mevagh Sanson, it was found that individuals who received a trigger warning before reading triggering material had no reduction in stress response compared to those who did not receive a trigger warning before reading the material (2).
While trigger warnings seem to be considerate and emotionally aware, they could be doing more harm than good for those who struggle with PTSD. Even though not every individual is the same and has the same experience, letting people figure out their triggers, and how to handle them is essential to healing from trauma. Putting censors on every potentially triggering topic is not going to expedite that.
1. Kaufman, S. B. (2019, April 5). Are trigger warnings actually helpful? Scientific American Blog Network.
2. Mevagh Sanson, D. S. (n.d.). Trigger warnings are trivially helpful at reducing negative affect, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance. SAGE Journals.
3. NCAC report: What’s all this about trigger warnings? National Coalition Against Censorship. (2020, January 2).
4. PTSD Facts & Treatment: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. PTSD Facts & Treatment | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2021, from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/treatment-facts.