Trigger Warnings Do Not Work.

Even further, they can harm.

Brooke Meredith

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image by Ash from Modern Afflatus (Unsplash.com)

Trigger warnings (TWs) have become popular in the media, entertainment, academic settings, and other venues when sharing content that some may find distressing (e.g., discussion of sexual assault, suicide, violence).

Why?

They originated as a measure of protection for survivors of trauma (as an example, for those with PTSD), because it was believed that viewing reminders of trauma can spark painful re-experiencing symptoms (e.g., flashbacks).

Proponents of trigger warnings say they can help create an inclusive environment and that they allow trauma survivors to prepare to engage with difficult materials. That, from an empathetic and mental health perspective, they help survivors to care for themselves.

Critics claim trigger warnings to be a threat to free speech, a smothering of academic freedom, and that they prevent students from engaging with challenging materials required for effective teaching. Some say that this can result in lesser resilience in people when this is taken to the extreme (for example, people claiming, “I don't want to hear, read, or see this because it ‘offends’ or ‘upsets’ me.”). This could be construed as problematic since a significant aspect of human life is coming face to face (at times) with things we do not like, which offend, upset, confuse, or insult us. This is important because it is how we learn.

So, what is the evidence for the effectiveness of trigger warnings? Anecdotally, some people report they are helpful. But what about science? What does science and research say?

There is growing evidence that trigger warnings actually create increases in anxiety (Bellet et al., 2019), especially in anticipation of viewing triggering stimuli (Bridgland, Oulton, & Takarangi, 2019; Gainsburg & Earl, 2018).

Participants who viewed trigger warnings were more likely to avoid engaging with stimuli at all (Gainsbury & Earl, 2018), which, from a large body of psychological research, we know may actually worsen anxiety in the long run (e.g., McNally, 2016).

But what about the intended audience of trigger warnings — people with a trauma history? Were these helpful to them?

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