The "Trigger Warning" Phenomenon

The "Trigger Warning" Phenomenon

As an undergraduate psychology major at a private institution, one thing that I have had significant exposure to is the “trigger warning”—something that has become a subject of recent debate. Over the last three years, I have received many trigger warnings. They have served to warn us of many different things: discussion about rape or other sexual violence, war violence, suicide, eating disorders, self harm, and a few other topics. All of these things share something in common: they can elicit a post-traumatic stress response. Topics falling under these “trigger warnings” do NOT include: controversial topics, topics that may hurt someone’s fragile feelings, or discussions that might upset someone because they have to hear a differing viewpoint.

The “trigger warning” is grossly misunderstood. It is time that people who have never received or issued a trigger warning stop complaining that they are a result of a wimpy generation or university system. That understanding is completely false. It is not, nor has it ever been, about avoiding conflict. It is about being sensitive to the fact that some people have experienced trauma. Having a panic attack in the middle of a lecture hall when faced with memories of that trauma might be a little awkward for everyone there, especially the victim.

One such trigger warning that I recently received was in a psychology class about human sexuality. We were going to have a lecture and discussion about sexual coercion, including topics such as rape, molestation, and sexual abuse. The night before class, our professor sent out an email just giving everyone a heads up that we would be talking about such a sensitive topic. A woman who was assaulted or a student who was molested as a child may still be having flashbacks and nightmares. Bringing up this topic could set off a PTSD episode, which can be characterized by panic attacks, hallucinations, aggressive behavior, recklessness, or self-harm. The warning is not issued because it’s sad to talk about bad things. It issued in order to be sensitive to the very real responses that often come with trauma.

When it comes down to it, trigger warnings are simply a tool utilized in many settings in order to avoid a situation that may prove to be disruptive, uncomfortable, or even dangerous. For anyone who is extremely opposed to trigger warning, I urge you to research what a PTSD episode can look like. I challenge you to ask yourself if you think it is acceptable to let someone go through that when a simple warning could have avoided it.