Trigger Warning

Sunday, November 21

By Annelia Vakrinou

Trigger Warnings (TW for short) are now commonplace, almost a staple of pop culture, marketing, social media and even publishing; books, movies, articles or even videos on YouTube and TikTok have been marked with these two words or letters in hope of protecting people sensitive to certain subjects (Usually violence or abuse of any kind) or effects (i.e. flashing lights or strobe) that might be used in these media and preventing a possible episode of some kind. However, the fact alone that you clicked on this article with this very title, counteracts the point of trigger warnings altogether. And don’t worry, no Trigger Warning is needed for what follows (this isn’t “A Little Life”).

The existence and most importantly the study of trigger warnings is nothing new and has been looked into by huge research centres, like that of Harvard and Nottingham, as early as 2016. Research findings showed that about half of all US teachers and professors use Trigger Warnings to warn students that certain class texts and photos include content that is connected to racism, sexual assault, or other trauma-related issues and they still remain supportive of them despite the fact that they have admittedly little -positive or negative- impact on the attending students. 

Various Harvard studies have proved that the results in those receiving and those not receiving warnings are the same. “Participants who were warned that they were about to watch graphic footage or read a graphic story felt just as badly as those who weren’t warned. They had a similar number of intrusive thoughts afterwards. Seeing a trigger warning only slightly decreased the participants’ attempts to avoid thinking about the graphic material.” The authors of the research argue that trigger warnings should not be condemned as there is no harm in maintaining them, but they might be part of what is disturbing college students’ mental health. “College students are increasingly anxious … and widespread adoption of trigger warnings in syllabi may promote this trend, tacitly encouraging students to turn to avoidance, thereby depriving them of opportunities to learn healthier ways to manage potential distress,” they write.

And the evidence doesn’t stop there. Even years after the “Year of the Trigger Warning” (2013) the results suggest that TWs can actually generate anxiety and PTSD as well as reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as a central part of their identity, ergo making them counterproductive. In spite of the well-meaning pretences of everyone who used and continues to use trigger warnings, it is still not the best way to protect someone from having an anxiety attack or any other kind of episode. By some measures what TWs can potentially achieve is essentially insignificant compared to the effects of actual therapy. “In other words, if you feel you need a trigger warning, maybe what you really need is better medical care” explains Richard McNally, Harvard psychologist in a 2016 New York Times article.

So what is the verdict? Should we stop using Trigger Warnings altogether or could they be maintained as a signal that you are attending a space when mental health needs are respected and considered? Different people have different trigger points and limits, ones that we cannot as a whole always be able to identify or avoid crossing before it is too late. The truth is the debate is still ongoing, researches are conducted creating question after question and so on ad infinitum. What is certain is that by making Trigger Warnings such a prominent and significant part of pop culture we shed so much light on trauma, PTSD and its influence and end up overemphasizing its importance in someone’s life. Even myself, someone with no diagnosed PTSD or trauma of any kind, become so wary whenever I see a TW and I find myself asking in my head “am I triggered by this? Do I find this disturbing? Would I be concerned about this if not for the Trigger Warning?” 

Furthermore, until science can provide us with clear-cut results and information on the actual impact of Trigger Warnings, let’s keep them in our minds and media but more like a reminder that any person can be carrying various trigger points and we are not responsible for everyone’s mental health without that meaning, we should stop respecting it. There is a fine line between fixation and ignorance and when that is applied to PTSD, trauma, anxiety or generally in the field of mental health, only trained professionals might be able to help each one of us find that silver lining.

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