Trigger Warnings May Actually Hurt The People They're Supposed To Help

Trigger warnings, sometimes referred to as trauma or content warnings, are meant to alert survivors and former victims of abuse, violence, and trauma of potentially disturbing content in media.

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
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Trigger warnings have become more popularized in recent years, especially on college campuses, where a lack of trigger warnings can often spark outrage. But a study from three psychologists at Harvard now disputes the claim that trigger warnings are healthy and even necessary in most contexts where potentially triggering content is present. In fact, the study finds that these warnings are not helpful, claiming “there is no evidence-based reason to use them.”

The Origin of Trigger Warnings

What began as a good faith effort to protect vulnerable people from becoming traumatized by "triggering" content now has a surprisingly large stake in our country’s culture war and on college campuses. Being “triggered” now has more colloquial connotations in our everyday language. 

Professor Nick Haslam, a psychology professor at the University of Melbourne, explains it like this: “Proponents argue that trigger warnings protect vulnerable and traumatized students from harm. Warnings allow students to prepare themselves mentally for distressing experiences or to avoid exposure to them if they feel unable to cope. Critics see things differently. Where trigger warning proponents see protection, they see coddling. Where proponents see sensitivity, they see censorship and threats to fearless pedagogy.”

Proponents argue that trigger warnings protect vulnerable and traumatized students from harm.

Haslam goes on to theorize that the entire concept of triggers and their relationship to traumatic experiences in individuals has been over-expanded on, with more political rather than psychological connotations now tied to the concept. Haslam explains that “triggers” even include the idea of avoiding things that just make us uncomfortable or angry, rather than protecting actual victims from re-experiencing their terror. 

Harvard Study Shows That Trigger Warnings Are Actually Harmful

Harvard’s team of psychologists, who published the study “Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals with Trauma Histories,” backs up Haslam’s claims.

The study surveyed 451 survivors who either self-identified as having PTSD or had the qualifiers to be diagnosed with PTSD. At random, some participants were given trigger warnings and some weren’t, before reading various passages from world literature that included graphic or disturbing content, some of which mirrored the exact trauma suffered by the participants. Participants then reported their emotional responses to the passages, with “self-reported anxiety” as the primary dependent variable. 

The participants who received trigger warnings beforehand were not better equipped or prepared.

The findings were overwhelmingly clear — the participants who received trigger warnings beforehand were not better equipped or prepared, as hypothesized, than those who didn’t receive warnings. 

Trigger warnings don’t help survivors to heal.

Perhaps the most damning summation of the study as a whole was that the researchers “found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.”

Trigger warnings reinforce the concept that victims are indistinguishable from their trauma.

As those of us might have observed from our own personal experiences or histories in therapy, you're trained to refer to trauma as something that happened to you, rather than something you played a part in, were responsible for, or deserved. This language is helpful in assisting survivors to distance themselves from past trauma and overcome it. However, trigger warnings work against the message that a survivor is more than their trauma.

Trauma victims who thrive are the ones who don’t let their trauma define their identity or their life.

In a culture where victimhood is often rewarded, we're seeing the harmful consequences of this mentality. When we demand trigger warnings, we’re declaring that our trauma is central, even essential, to our identities. 

Survivors who actively seek to reclaim their control and their lives have no interest in victimhood. 

When I think back to how upset I was at being made to sit through a film with many elements that resonated in my own life, I blamed my professor for failing to think of me, one of hundreds of students, first. In reality, I was encouraging myself to languish in my feelings of inadequacy and humiliation. I chose to blame the professor for those feelings when I should have seen them for what they were and how they worked tangentially in the formation of my character. I let pain from the past overcome me, instead of naming and claiming it.

Closing Thoughts

As many of us know, survivors who actively seek to reclaim control over their lives have no interest in being seen as victims. This is not to shame survivors who choose to assert their trauma as part of their human experience but to encourage those who try to move past it.

Trigger warnings reinforce the concept that victims are indistinguishable from their trauma, which is a debilitating belief and can trap victims in a cycle of helplessness.

For many, trauma is the fundamental basis of the identity they’ve constructed for themselves. But victimhood, as we’ve seen, can play no part in the rewarding lives that renewal, growth, and acceptance have afforded so many survivors. Reclamation of agency and safety does not have to include warnings at every turn, but realistic perspectives and acceptance of self.