Trigger warnings don’t work. I know that’s a controversial statement as trigger warnings have crept into seemingly all aspects of media. But trigger warnings did this without anyone studying the effects of including a trigger warning. People started including them with good intentions, but that doesn’t mean including them actually produces positive responses. Here, I’m going to outline how we’ve learned that trigger warnings don’t work to help people feel less traumatized and, in fact, can have negative effects.
My View of Trigger Warnings
I admit, even before learning about this research, I had a dim view of trigger warnings. I don’t like to use trigger warnings. I know that as a person working in the mental health space, saying this is verboten, but it’s how I feel.
Specifically, I feel that my writing is for adults, and adults can make their own decisions about what to read or not. If I put the word “suicide” in the title, for example, you can assume I’ll be talking about suicide. If that’s a topic you find difficult, that article might not be for you. But don’t complain that I didn’t add an additional trigger warning about talking about suicide — it was in the title. If I called a piece “My Blue Dog” and then proceeded to detail something about suicide, then, well, a warning might be warranted.
But let’s be clear here. Just because you start reading something doesn’t mean you have to finish it. If you find that sentence three starts to introduce a topic you don’t like, you can stop. You don’t need a trigger warning; you need decent judgment and self-awareness — and keep in mind, I can’t give that to you no matter what I write.
Trigger Warnings Don’t Work — The Research
And I’m writing this today, not just because it’s my opinion but, rather, because the emerging research is on my side.
Here’s what we know about whether trigger warnings work or not:
- People wtihout trauma histories that were exposed to a trigger warning, “believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm.”1
- In other words trigger warnings can undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.
- Another study found “warning messages may prolong the negative characteristics associated with memories over time, rather than prepare people to recall a negative experience.”2
- Another study found trigger warnings “did not produce differences in coping strategies, state anxiety, or phenomenology (e.g., vividness, valence) relative to the content condition. Only one key difference emerged: participants who imagined encountering a warning used fewer positive words, when describing how they would react.”3
- A potential explanation for the above finding is that “trigger warnings fail to ameliorate negative emotional reactions is that these warnings may not help people bring coping strategies to mind.”
So, not only are researchers finding that trigger warnings don’t help people, but they are actually finding they can hurt people. The presence of trigger warnings is not inert.
So, while people have been trigger warning everything to death, we have been responding badly to it and didn’t even know it. I know people’s motives were good, but I’m not sure people should bet on the fragility of the human psyche. I prefer to bet on one’s ability to do what is best for them. We are stronger than we think. Knowing that is powerful.
Don’t Use Trigger Warnings, They Don’t Work
I believe people need to take responsibility for their own mental wellness. This means that if you need to protect your mental health by avoiding certain topics, you should do so. So, if suicide, as a topic, is difficult for you, you should feel free to avoid it — but not based on a trigger warning, but, rather, based on the subject matter and your own judgment. If I name a piece “My Suicide Attempt Story,” that is something that some people would want to avoid, and I understand that, but it shouldn’t be necessary for me to attach a trigger warning. It’s not my responsibility to guess what will trigger an individual person. It’s up to that person to determine their triggers and take responsibility for dealing with them in the best way they know how.
- Bellet, B. et al., “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, July 2018.
- Bridgland, V., and Takarangi, M., “Danger! Negative memories ahead: the effect of warnings on reactions to and recall of negative memories.” Memory, March 2021.
- Bridgland, V. et al., “Unprepared: Thinking of a trigger warning does not prompt preparation for trauma-related content.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, November 2021.
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