On Trigger Warnings

What are trigger warnings and why do we need them?

On Trigger Warnings

This article discusses trigger warnings and includes detailed examples of common triggers.

Several weeks ago, I read an article in The Atlantic entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind” (also “How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on Campus”). In the article, the authors take a stand against recent actions by colleges in America intended to improve mental wellbeing of students, namely trigger warnings.

The article tells the story of growing a sensitivity of the youth of America to “words and ideas they don’t like”. It discusses aspects of liberty, free speech and open debate Throughout it seems to be suggesting that recent increases in awareness of mental health issues and psychological triggers and efforts to help those affected by them have gone too far. Much of the article has nothing to do with trigger warnings.

Mental health treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are used to help people identify negative thoughts in order to reduce the effect of them. It is a sort of positive thinking training. I have participated in this.

Using trigger warnings can concur with this treatment. In the context of college lectures discussed in the article, a trigger warning is something which alerts students that a topic is going to be discussed which may cause them mental distress. This gives students the opportunity to step out of the lecture.

Common examples of such sensitive topics are rape, sexual assault, violence, drug-taking, self-harm or body dysmorphia. People who have had negative experiences and struggle with these issues can find that they are psychologically ‘triggered’ by the discussion. These triggers are sensations which induce negative, distorted thinking, often manifesting in the form of depression or anxiety.

Importantly, triggers are an unfortunate but definitive part of some common mental illnesses. Even while participating in CBT it is easy to lose control of your emotions and think negatively due to a trigger.

Everyone’s triggers are different. There are common ones which correlate with common mental health conditions. However, due to personal events in someone’s life, they may have an obscure trigger. Anything could potentially be a trigger. This means some trigger warnings are extremely easy to foresee and others are not.

The Atlantic’s article has a problem with trigger warnings:

According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.

Triggers are not fears.

Anyone with an understanding of what it feels like to be triggered will know this. Fear is conscious. It is clear and defined. I am scared of heights. I am scared of the dark. I am scared of spiders. Triggers are subconscious. They are not clear or defined. You can be triggered by things you wouldn’t expect to be. The same thing can trigger you one day and not another. Those words were used in a violent way towards me before. The girl in this magazine is thin and I am not. This looks similar to the street on the night I was groped; I don’t feel safe here.

The article structures itself around the various distorted ways of thinking identified in CBT. While opposing trigger warnings, it fails to mention the overall aim of CBT which is to regain control of your emotions and thoughts. Trigger warnings and avoiding known triggers can be a healthy and extremely useful part of therapy or self-help – far from the menace they are portrayed as in The Atlantic.

The article goes on to discuss examples of free speech issues. It seems to draw a link between politically-minded students protesting against views they do not support and mentally ill students trying to avoid personally distressing lecture topics through trigger warnings. It says:

The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.

Triggers are not ideas.

Again, the misunderstanding of triggers seems blatant. Ideas are conscious – extremely conscious. They are reasoned, though-out, considered. They are usually clear and defined. Triggers are not. In my interpretation, the article is conflating a real struggle of mental illness with political disagreement. This is damaging to the perception of mental health issues more generally. It places the two on the same level, tarring sufferers of mental illness with the same brush as those opposing free debate. It is simply wrong.

I am not wholly against the article. In fact, I welcome the sections related to free speech and open debate. It discusses issues around suppressing political ideas through protest. It discusses the teaching of important topics in colleges despite their sensitive nature. However, it does an injustice to those people who are dealing with mental health conditions who rely on trigger warnings to improve their mental wellbeing.

Given their seemingly flimsy nature, you might ask what the point of them is, especially if anything can be a trigger. My answer is simple, and comes in two parts:

1. Fight against stigma.

By showing a recognition of triggers we can reduce the stigma towards mental illness. Anecdotally, the most significant barrier I have seen to people seeking help and treatment for mental illness is the stigma towards it, often from the people closest to them. This is the boy who won’t talk to his parents about his depression because they don’t understand that it’s a serious condition, or the girl who is too scared to try counselling at school because her peers will mock her. Trigger warnings take a step against this stigma.

“Hell yes, I know mental health problems affect you and I care.” That’s what a lecturer is saying when they present a trigger warning. It doesn’t matter if it’s your trigger or not; knowing that mental health is considered and valued does a lot of good to comfort people who are dealing with mental health issues. It suggests to people that it is safe to discuss and seek help. It is a statement of understanding and support. Trigger warnings are a feature of a compassionate society which recognises that people may be struggling with their mental health. They give people the chance to stay away from situations they feel are damaging to their health until they are ready to face them, or while they are seeking help.

2. Guard against serious triggers.

While we can never cover every trigger, it is possible to help in many cases. The most serious triggers (often related to sexual assault, violence or self-harm) can always be prefaced by a trigger warning. Think of this like an 80/20 rule. 80% of the damage is done by 20% of triggers. We should try to cover such cases as best we can. Any time you discuss these topics in a formal context provide a warning. In casual conversation, perhaps ask people whether they are comfortable talking about an issue. It’s so easy to help at no cost.

This said, there is another important point to be made about trigger warnings. Triggers are very personal things. If you have a trigger it is not your fault, but it is your responsibility to seek treatment and overcome it. It is your responsibility to consider your own triggers and talk to the people close to you about them. As I see it, trigger warnings are only something to rely on while you are starting to seek help. They assist you until you can start to deal with the root causes of your distress by trying counselling, therapy or CBT.

It is not a professor’s job to account for every possible trigger. It is their job to make their students feel comfortable, which I would suggest involves providing warnings for common triggers. A trigger warning should not be censorship. A triggering topic is not one which shouldn’t be discussed. It is simply one which each individual has the freedom not to participate in, without consequence. No topic should be off limits in debate, but respect should be shown.

The rules are simple: Ask and respect others’ rights to leave sensitive discussions. Take responsibility for your triggers; leave when you need to and seek treatment. Respect the right of people to have a conversation, even if you’re not comfortable.

Discussing difficult issues is important. Tackling some of the biggest problems in our society such as racism, sexism, rape and abuse requires us to speak out when we can. We cannot ban these topics. We need to hear strong voices speaking about them, standing against the trauma they may have faced. Their sensitive nature places difficult topics as some of the most worthy to discuss.

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