Trigger Warnings Do Not Work.
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).
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?
Jones, Bellet, & McNally (2020) were able to get a sample of 451 participants who they recruited online, each of whom had experienced a traumatic event in their life. Each participant then read literature passages, some of which contained graphic scenes of violence, injury, or death. They then rated their emotions after reading passages
The results: trigger warnings did not reduce anxiety for the sample in general.
Trigger warnings also did not reduce anxiety among those who met a clinical cutoff for PTSD symptoms or reported a PTSD diagnosis, or for those who reported that the passage content matched the content of their own trauma.
On the flip side, trigger warnings actually tended towards small increases in anxiety than decreases in the overall sample.
And for individuals with more severe PTSD, trigger warnings actually increased anxiety.
Research has also found that giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused them to view the trauma as “more central to their life narrative.” This is a problem because it may reinforce the notion that trauma causes permanent, damaging psychological change (which is not the case).
On the contrary, it is people who view their traumatic experience as central to their life who have elevated PTSD symptoms. Trauma itself does not automatically cause permanent, damaging psychological change. It is, much more so, how people process and then perceive their trauma that determines this.
All of the above then suggests that trigger warnings are actually countertherapeutic for trauma survivors.
Overall takeaway: trigger warnings are not often helpful to those for whom they were designed (trauma survivors), and they may even cause harm.