I saw the topic of trigger warnings circulating in the blogosphere recently, and I though I’d chime in with my own thoughts.
In a very general sense, a trigger is one thing causing another to occur. What’s particular to people with a trauma history is that what’s being triggered is re-experiencing, such as having a flashback (where traumatizing events are experienced as occurring in the present).
When we’re talking about trigger warnings, to me, it makes a difference what we’re talking about triggering. If it’s offense or distress in general, there’s probably not a very compelling argument for a trigger warning, and this is probably where accusations of people being “snowflakes” fall (and as a quick aside, I really dislike that term/concept). But if we’re talking about triggering re-experiencing, that’s a whole other conversation.
One of the arguments against trigger warnings is that avoidance actually reinforces PTSD, while exposure is helpful. While that may be true in a general sense, on an individual level, it seems a bit patronizing. Even if someone is doing prolonged exposure work, the therapist is going to approach it in a controlled manner rather than throwing someone in at the top of their fear hierarchy. I see trauma-related trigger warnings as a means of informed consent, so people can make choices about what works for them at that point in time.
It sounds like there’s been a lot of debate over this in higher education, where being exposed to new ideas that challenge you is a basic part of the process. An article in The Atlantic says about half of American university professors use trigger warnings. A couple of studies have concluded that they’re not effective, and might actually prime students to react in a distressed manner, but one of the studies didn’t include participants with PTSD, and the other included some but that wasn’t the focus. That seems like it completely misses the point, and really comes back to the idea of triggering distress/offense being a different thing than triggering traumatic re-experiencing.
Another area where trigger warnings may be helpful is content related to suicide. Studies have shown that certain styles of media reporting of suicides can lead to a suicide contagion effect, and one of the things that’s particularly risky is talking about methods. If I’m using “suicide” is in a blog post title, I’m not going to add a trigger warning about suicide, but if I’m talking about methods, I would definitely put a warning so that people have enough information to make the choice that’s right for them.
I think putting trigger warnings for common trauma triggers and suicide specifics is a way of showing respect for people who live with the effects of trauma or who are high-risk with with regards to suicide. In that context, I don’t see it as avoidance; I see it as a way of allowing people to go in with their eyes open. When this gets mixed in as the some issue as not wanting to offend/distress people, that can end up inadvertently minimizing the experiences of people who’ve been through some really difficult stuff and turning it into more of a political correctness issue, and I don’t think that’s helpful for anyone.
What are your thoughts on trigger warnings?
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