Public Interest Advocacy

Trigger Warnings are Anti-Science

Trigger WarningsAs a former social worker and foster parent for sexually abused children, I have been bemused by the current craze for "trigger warnings" in higher education.  Supposedly designed to protect trauma victims, the practice, augmented by "safe spaces," has morphed into an all-encompassing security blanket.  Some university professors have criticized it as "at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual," while activists forecast a dire effect on free speech rights. Others defend the practice as simply good manners.

Political arguments aside, the belief in the need for trigger warnings has no basis in social science or psychology.  In fact, like many practices rooted in ideology, it is deeply anti-science.

The purpose of trigger warnings, according to defenders such as Amanda Marcotte, is to "attempts to reduce the chances of causing unnecessary pain to people with mental health issues."  Jeet Heer at the New Republic finds its roots in the vision of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as memory of the trauma "lying just below the surface of consciousness, ready to be triggered."

This view of painful memories, however, simply does not take into account how PTSD and stress work, and is based more in well-meant superstition than scientific evidence.  The fact is that continually shielding victims from reminders of their trauma simply makes them weaker.

In the first place, not all trauma victims develop PTSD.  In fact, the vast majority of people who face trauma do not suffer from it, but recover with "time and good self care."  Of course, some events have a higher incidence of PTSD, such as sexual assault and combat, but most people who face even those situations do not develop full-fledged PTSD.  A growing body of research suggests that low-level stress earlier in life actually helps people develop resilience in the fact of more terrible trauma.

Second, it is impossible to predict what will trigger a trauma memory.  Defenders of trigger warnings assume that descriptions of violence are likely to evoke bad memories.  Trauma survivors, however, know that anything can trigger a memory, even something so innocuous as the sound of a soda can being opened or white socks.  There is simply no way to predict a trigger and to protect survivors from all of them.

Finally, and most important, the state of the art treatment for trauma is exposure to the triggers.  A 2008 analysis of mental health research noted that almost all recent therapies for PTSD use components of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the hallmark of which is a continuum of education, exposure, restructuring, and anxiety management training.  The study concluded that exposure therapy is the best treatment for PTSD, particularly victims of sexual assault.

In fact, numerous studies are showing that when trauma victims view their trauma as the central event of their lives, they suffer from increased mental health problems.  One study showed that the more that trauma victims focused on their trauma, the stronger their PTSD symptoms.  Another study among earthquake survivors found that those who were more exposed to reminders of the event recovered faster.

Trigger warnings, then, may make us feel kind and benevolent, but they do not help the victims.  If we really want to help them move forward, we have to think beyond our well-meant superstitions and focus on what works in the real world.

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