Written by Will Thurston Class of 2019
Trigger warnings are verbal or written notices provided prior to exposing readers or viewers to potentially upsetting content. The practice of providing these warnings originated online to allow individuals with trauma histories to avoid material which might upset them. However, in recent years, students have called for trigger warnings in academic spaces, leading to debate about their validity and efficacy. Many have argued both for and against the implementation of trigger warnings in classroom, but because there have been no empirical studies on their effectiveness, instructors are left to make personal judgments (Boysen, 2017).
Individuals with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related or anxiety disorders may benefit the most from the use of trigger warnings. These disorders can cause distressing symptoms like panic or dissociation in response to environmental cues related to the past trauma or feared object or event (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These cues have been colloquially referred to as ‘triggers’. For instance, a veteran who was injured by a car bomb and later developed PTSD may experience cars or loud noises as ‘triggering’. Sometimes the triggering material may not be directly related to the trauma, especially when an individual generalizes their fears to a broader range of stimuli. In other cases, the associations between trauma and cue may be unclear and individuals may experience symptoms in the absence of a known trigger.
Once instructors understand that individuals with mental disorders may be triggered by objects and events in their environments, they likely will want to minimize this risk to maintain a safe and effective learning environment. Studies have shown that students who feel anxious and distracted are not able to learn as well as their calmer peers (Rai, Loschky, & Harris, 2015). Trigger warnings in the classroom to give students the opportunity to prepare, or if need be, fully disengage from the upsetting material and appear to be a logical solution. However, academics and psychologists have debated this strategy. Some consider warnings as a necessity and others condemn them as actually doing more harm than good.
Some argue that while most college students experience trauma, very few of them develop PTSD, leading to criticism about the use of trigger warnings in the classroom (Bernat, Ronfeldt, Calhoun & Arias, 1998; Breslau et al., 1998). Anxiety disorders are also not very common among college students (Eisenberg, Gollust, Golberstein & Hefner, 2007), and this leads some commentators to urge that trigger warnings are only provided to those with diagnosed disorders (in a similar manner to how learning disabilities are accommodated). Others wholly reject the warnings and believe that the literature on treatment of trauma-related and anxiety disorders supports their stance. For instance, exposure therapy, which involves bringing an individual into mental or physical proximity with their past trauma or object of anxiety, is a well-established and effective strategy of psychological treatment for these disorders (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Critics of trigger warnings believe that students will only reinforce preexisting fears by continuing to avoid the things that upset them. However, exposure therapy occurs in a controlled treatment environment and does not involve unexpected contact with the target fear or trauma (Boysen, 2017).
Additionally, some critics are concerned that trigger warnings may limit academic freedom and hinder the ability of instructors to teach. They believe that students will disengage too frequently from anything that bothers them, and professors will be unable to get important information across. These voices believe that higher education inherently involves potentially upsetting material and that students should not be ‘coddled’ but exposed to challenging topics for the sake of their intellectual development (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015). While this argument has face validity, it is based in a dramatized version of reality where classrooms are held captive by large numbers of students refusing to engage with the curriculum. These arguments sometimes come from a politically conservative perspective and target what is perceived as an overemphasis on ‘political correctness’ or a suppression of free speech at left-leaning institutions (Levinovitz, 2016). In actuality, large-scale incidents have been few and far-between despite popular media coverage, and both liberal and conservative students have been involved (Marcotte, 2015).
Proponents of trigger warnings emphasize research that suggests individuals with trauma and anxiety disorders benefit from the ability to anticipate upcoming stressors. People generally prefer to have notice about potentially triggering events in their future (Grupe & Nitschke, 2013), and research shows that individuals with PTSD and anxiety disorders are especially vulnerable to unexpected stressors compared to individuals without these disorders (Grillon et al., 2009). Furthermore, based on student interviews, some researchers have suggested that college students may not be equipped with the emotional tools to successfully interpret and process upsetting material. First-year students or those in introductory courses may be confronting difficult topics related to the subject for the first time and, as such, may benefit from warnings (Kostouros & Wenzel, 2016). Research is needed to determine whether benefits of trigger warnings, if they exist, generalize to all students or are only relevant to those with mental disorders.
The trigger warning debate will likely continue until empirical evidence exists to guide instructors’ choices. Experimental studies will be able to determine the actual effects of warnings on students and their learning, allowing professors to make an informed decision.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: Author.
Bernat, J. A., Ronfeldt, H. M., Calhoun, K. S., & Arias, I. (1998). Prevalence of traumatic events and peritraumatic predictors of posttraumatic stress symptoms in a nonclinical sample of college students. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11, 645-664. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1024485310934 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9672053
Boysen, G. A. (2017). Evidence-based answers to questions about trigger warnings for clinically-based distress: A review for teachers. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 3(2), 163-177. http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=search.displayrecord&uid=2017-27109-005
Breslau, N., Kessler R. C., Chilcoat, H. D., Shultz, L. R., Davis, G. C., & Andreski, P. (1998). Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder: An empirical investigation. Biological Psychiatry, 50, 699-704. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9672053
Eisenberg, D., Gollust, S. E., Golberstein, E., & Hefner, J. L. (2007). Prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety and suicidality among university students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77(4), 534-542. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18194033
Grillon C., Pine D. S., Lissek S., Rabin S., Bonne O., Vythilingham M. (2009). Increased anxiety during anticipation of unpredictable aversive stimuli in posttraumatic stress disorder but not in generalized anxiety disorder. Biol. Psychiatry 66, 47–5310.1016/j.biopsych.2008.12.028 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19217076
Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 14(7), 488–501. http://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3524 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23783199
Kostouros, P., & Wenzel, J. (2016). Depictions of suffering in the postsecondary classroom. Traumatology. doi:10.1037/trm0000110 http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2016-60709-001
Levinovitz, A. (2016, August 30). How trigger warnings silence religious students. Retrieved July 06, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/silencing-religious-students-on-campus/497951/
Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2015, November 20). The coddling of the american mind. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/
Marcotte, A. (2015, August 26). The fun home flap proves that the big threat to campus free speech isn’t “Political correctness”. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2015/08/26/duke_freshmen_and_fun_home_most_free_speech_attacks_come_from_the_right.html
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2014). Abnormal psychology (Sixth edition. ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Rai, M. K., Loschky, L. C., & Harris, R. J. (2015). The effects of stress on reading: A comparison of first-language versus intermediate second-language reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 3 48 –363. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1061915
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