Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals with Trauma Histories

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: There is no evidence that trigger warnings are helpful for trauma survivors, for those who self-reported a PTSD diagnosis, or for those who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors' trauma matched the passages’ content. There is substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors' view of their trauma as central to their identity.

Past research has indicated that trigger warnings are unhelpful in reducing anxiety. The results of this study are consistent with that conclusion. This study was the first to focus on a sample of people who had survived Criterion A trauma as defined by the DSM-5.

The study found that trigger warnings are unhelpful for trauma survivors, college students, trauma-naïve individuals, and mixed groups of participants. Given this consistent conclusion, the researchers find no evidence-based reason for educators, administrators, or clinicians to use trigger warnings.

Researchers found substantial evidence that giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused them to view trauma as more central to their life narrative. Some trigger warnings explicitly suggest that trauma survivors are uniquely vulnerable (e.g., "especially in those with a history of trauma").

Even when trigger warnings only mention content, the implicit message that trauma survivors are vulnerable remains (why else provide a warning?). These messages may reinforce the notion that trauma is invariably a watershed event that causes permanent psychological change.

Trigger warnings have sparked considerable debate in higher education. Critics suggest that trigger warnings imperil free speech, academic freedom, and effective teaching, preventing students from engaging with challenging material. Other critics have suggested that trigger warnings foster unreasonable expectations about the world, hampering natural resilience among young people.

The encouraging conclusions of studies have begun to converge on the consensus that trigger warnings are not typically helpful in reducing anxiety.

Read the full study here

Feature Charticle

Effect of Trigger Warnings By StudyHarvard

 

Findings:

  • Conclusions of studies have begun to converge on the consensus that trigger warnings are not typically helpful in reducing anxiety.
  • Researchers found substantial evidence that giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused them to view trauma as more central to their life narrative. 
  • The study found that trigger warnings are unhelpful for trauma survivors, and there's no evidence-based reason for educators, administrators, or clinicians to use trigger warnings.