Three Things You Should Know About Trigger Warnings

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Photo: Luca Pierro/Getty Images/RooM RF

“Trigger warnings” have become such a punch line that it’s hard to find thoughtful discussion about the real issues they encapsulate: issues of trauma and language and the connection between the two. That’s why it was nice to see Slate publish a long, thoughtful cover story on the subject by Katy Waldman earlier this week.

“In psychological parlance,” explains Waldman, “a trigger can be any stimulus that transports a PTSD sufferer back to the original scene of her trauma.” A trigger warning, then, is designed to let people know that there are words or images or other stimuli coming up that may be likely to trigger people who have endured certain types of trauma. Unlike most people who have chimed in on this debate, Waldman actually took the time to interview individual people about their experiences with PTSD triggers, and to consult some experts.

Before proceeding, it’s worth highlighting two things: First, the evidence we have suggests trigger warnings just aren’t that big a deal — the one big (albeit unrepresentative) survey we have on the subject suggests that hardly any campuses have adopted formal policies on them, and that most college kids haven’t encountered trigger warnings “in the wild.” (Update: Via Twitter, a reader pointed out that NPR just released the results of a new (also-unscientific) survey it conducted, in which the percentage of professors who used trigger warnings was much higher: 50 percent. That said, almost none of the professors reported that they had been pressured to use trigger warnings by students.)

Second, people get caught up in the term “trigger warning” because it is so loaded, and has sometimes been adopted by social-justice types in a cartoonish and performative way (“tw: capitalism, oppression, patriarchy”). At its core, though, all a trigger warning is is a content warning: “There is some difficult, visceral material ahead — just a head’s up.”

So the question at hand is what the science tells us about trigger warnings and how people actually react to different sorts of triggers. Here are three takeaways from Waldman’s article, which you should read in full:

1. It’s really hard to predict what will trigger someone. A great deal of the activism surrounding trigger warnings has involved drawing a simple connection between certain concepts and PTSD triggers. For rape victims, the thinking goes, mentions of rape might bring a wave of symptoms — hence the need to warn them about what’s to come.

Anecdotally, some trauma victims report that this is the case. But it’s often more complicated and nuanced. A trigger, Waldman writes, “might be visual (a red baseball cap like the one an old abuser wore, a gait or facial expression) or aural (a whistle or slamming door). Some people are triggered by the smell of cigarette smoke or traces of a specific perfume. Others react to spoken or written language: words that switch on the brain’s stress circuits, bathing synapses in adrenaline and elevating heart rate and blood pressure.” So while it’s reasonable to think that trigger warnings pertaining to categories like rape and violence might help some traumatized students get a better sense of which sorts of content they can and can’t handle, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, simply because the nature of memory, trauma, and associations is so complicated.

2. Rich, interesting language inevitably hurts people — at least a little. Waldman’s article covers two broad categories of people: those who have genuine PTSD and who find that certain associations elicit really unpleasant symptoms — dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, and so on. But there’s another, milder category here too: Folks who are hurt by certain uses of words, but who don’t appear to be fully “triggered” by them. For example, after Waldman used the phrase “epileptic throb” to refer to to a soundtrack, she got an angry email asking her to remember “the many people who have epilepsy, and who read Slate.” In many of these situations, it’s more that people are offended than that they experience serious PTSD symptoms.

“So what’s the solution?” asks Waldman. “It can sometimes feel as though modern language codes pit expressive richness and variety against empathy and compassion. The binary’s imperfect, but pick your team.” Part of this depends, of course, on how much harm you think these brief episodes do — there are experts who don’t think they are worth worrying about too much. “So what?” the psychologist Darby Saxbe told Waldman in a very gentle way when Waldman pointed out that “flashbacks are scary and uncomfortable.” Saxbe insisted that PTSD symptoms “won’t hurt you” and “won’t shatter the integrity of your body or your mind.”

3. There’s solid evidence that avoiding triggers won’t help you in the long run. Part of the reason some psychologists don’t think that exposure to triggers is that big a deal is that gradual, careful exposure is a proven way for many people to move beyond being crippled by their symptoms. That’s the basis of some of the most successful PTSD protocols, in fact. Edna Foa, a leading PTSD researcher and the developer of one of these protocols, encourages those who find that certain words elicit a reaction not to avoid them, but to do the opposite. For a patient who is triggered by military language, for example, she might encourage them to “[d]rive to the local veterans center, awash in the stories of fellow soldiers, and ask people questions about their military service; read the paper; watch the news. She has instructed patients who’ve experienced sexual violence to search for accounts of rape online, so that they can sift through their reactions in their next therapy session. Do it with a sister or a partner, she urges. Or do it by yourself. You’re strong enough.”

“Do it by yourself” isn’t an argument against trigger warnings. Hurling an 18-year-old student into English-seminar panic attacks doesn’t help anyone. So Waldman rightly points out that this finding shouldn’t be taken as evidence that trigger warnings are a bad idea. It should be taken as solid evidence, though, that trying to avoid your triggers forever might not be the best or most beneficial approach.