Let's Talk About: Trigger Warnings

As of late there seem to be many schools as well as individual professors who are adamantly against “trigger warnings.” This often seems to go hand-in-hand with the idea that being uncomfortable is an important aspect of learning and expanding one’s mind to new ideas. This argument has been seen when students protest controversial speakers at their universities. While personally I do support the idea that being made “uncomfortable” is an unavoidable piece of education (new ideas scare people, it happens), I think there is an oversimplification when it comes to triggers and trigger warnings that paint people, often college-aged students as being oversensitive. It's important to realize that being oversensitive and needing trigger warnings are not the same thing.


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What are trigger and trigger warnings?

Triggers are essentially things (phrases, places, smells, people, sights, situations, etc.) that can “re-trigger” or bring a person back to an experience or experiences of trauma. This can take the form of sadness, panic, anger, anxiety, and so on -- usually in an overwhelming manner. For example, this can manifest into a panic/anxiety attack. And panic attacks in themselves can manifest differently. It goes beyond feeling a little “uncomfortable.” Triggers are often tied to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and often seem to only be taken seriously in that sense, though even then I’ve heard people trivialize a veteran’s trauma.

Everything from an anxiety attack to repetition of unhealthy or negative behaviors can result from being exposed to an individual’s trigger. Extreme anxiety can really cause serious problems for one's health, which is why triggers should be taken seriously by schools, teachers, and other students.

Are people being oversensitive or is there legitimacy behind the push for them?

There’s a significant difference between a topic making someone uncomfortable and sending someone into an anxiety attack.

There do tend to be some problematic aspects to trigger warnings however. Please note though, that this is more about how they are used rather than what they are meant to do. Trigger warnings should be a warning, so that students and other individuals involved are made aware of what is going to be talked about, viewed, etc. This gives them the opportunity to leave and not be a part of the discussion if they really can’t, but also to just be aware so they can “look after oneself.” If there is a heavy topic coming up, people who will be involved have a chance to brace themselves for it or just leave if it’s really too hard for them. Often there are individuals who choose to use trigger warnings as an excuse of sorts to avoid discussing controversial topics though. I think this is part of why they aren’t taken seriously much of the time.

For those students, it’s important to realize being uncomfortable, angry, upset, etc. in a classrooms/educational setting isn’t always a bad thing. It’s just normal and something that comes along with seeing and hearing new perspectives.

Can universities balance difficult/controversial topics/discussions while also caring for their students?

Absolutely. Professors and universities have the capability to be respectful of everyone’s individual experiences while also continuing to educate their students. For example, students can be given alternative assignments when the class is covering something potentially triggering. During my first semester at UP, one class of mine was working with the school’s sexual assault prevention program to help them create a possible mobile app. This obviously led to discussions about the program itself and sexual assault on campus. For students who didn’t want to be a part of that group, another group was formed that worked with UP Housing to talk about the new dorm that was being built. This gave students a chance to distance themselves from dealing with a possible trigger directly while also giving them the opportunity to still learn.  

Professors can also do something as simple as warning students about upcoming discussions that may be upsetting to some students. Then, if the student feels like they may not be able to handle the situation, there is no shame in choosing to opt out of class on the given day. And during the discussions, being tactful and respectful of those involved in the discussion. It is not the student’s job to disclose their personal experiences that make the topic triggering for them -- a student shouldn’t have to email their professor or raise their hand and let everyone know they were once abused in order to be given some level of respect. Professors and students alike should just keep in mind that those they are discussing may be present in the classroom, even if they are unaware.