I saw the topic of trigger warnings circulating in the blogosphere recently, and I thought 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 past trauma history is that what’s being triggered is re-experiencing. That means re-experiencing traumatic events as though they’re occurring in the present, i.e. having a flashback.
Arguments around trigger warnings
When we’re talking about trigger warnings, to me, it makes a difference what we’re talking about triggering. If it’s offence or distress in general, there’s probably not a very compelling argument for a trigger warning. This is probably where accusations of people being “snowflakes” fall (and as a quick aside, I really dislike that term/concept). If we’re talking about triggering re-experiencing, though, 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; they’re not going to just throw someone in at the top of their fear hierarchy. I see trauma-related trigger warnings as a means of informed consent. It’s a way to allow people to make choices about what works for them at that point in time.
Who’s triggering what?
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 fundamental part of the process. An article in The Atlantic says that 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. However, 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 it really comes back to whether one is triggering distress/offence or 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. One of the riskiest things to talk about is suicide methods. If I’m using “suicide” is in a blog post title, I’m not going to add a trigger warning about suicide. If I’m talking about methods, though, 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 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 talked about as being the same issue as not wanting to offend/distress people, that can inadvertently minimize the experiences of people who’ve been through some really difficult stuff. It can also turn 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?