Psychological support
Psychological support

Trigger warnings erase the hierarchy of trauma

RENDEZVIEW: We all feel anxious at times, but treating everyone as though they're fragile and might break can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Utter it often enough, and it becomes true, writes Dr Karen Brooks.

A report last week from the UK that a math's exam question about calories and breakfast - which prompted a student walkout - had many people thinking we have.

Or is it the case we're conflating normal anxiety about issues that affect many of us, with those who suffer from genuine PTSD?

Trigger warnings are cautions offered at the start of a piece of writing, or visual material such as blogs, news reports or TV shows/movies (including those dealing with fictitious material) that let consumers know there may be sensitive/disturbing/anxiety-provoking content - Eg violence, drug-taking, sex, racism, child and animal abuse/violence, homophobic or transphobic slurs etc.

Nowadays, they're often offered in educational settings both as a general warning about course material or as an imminent one lest, like the example above, a student becomes distressed.

Yet, so prevailing are trigger warnings now that they run the risk of becoming white noise and failing to help those they're genuinely designed to both protect and allow to make conscious choices to either engage or avoid.

When an exam question is met by a mass student walk out, you know trigger warnings have gone too far. Picture: iStock
When an exam question is met by a mass student walk out, you know trigger warnings have gone too far. Picture: iStock

I'm a great believer in warning people they may find the content disturbing. But being disturbed and moved out of your comfort zone is very different to being utterly traumatised and reliving an horrific ordeal.

These days, everyone, it seems, is potentially on the brink of being (re) traumatised, offended, and/or having their mental wellbeing placed under threat.

It's hard not to be cynical, especially if you don't fall into an "at risk" category or have never experienced genuine trauma or been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. For these people, trigger warnings serve as a valuable and essential service and allow for personal decisions - decisions that can mean the difference between shoring up resilience and a potential breakdown.

But putting those sufferers aside for a moment, there are some who believe that the way trigger warnings are being over used infantilises and coddles people to their detriment. They're seen as undermining inner-strength and giving young people permission to basically fall apart. Their use, it's felt, can discourage personal growth and learning.

These days, it seems everyone is on the brink of being traumatised, offended or having their mental wellbeing placed under threat. Picture: iStock
These days, it seems everyone is on the brink of being traumatised, offended or having their mental wellbeing placed under threat. Picture: iStock

From an educational point of view, it can also skew students' perception of course content.

Dr Onni Gust, who uses trigger warnings, not to evade material or "mollycoddle "students, believes they're a compassionate and appropriate response. In a recent article Gust argues they're used to "signal to survivors of abuse of trauma that they need to keep breathing. It reminds them to be particularly aware of the skills and coping strategies that they have developed and to switch them on".

Gust thinks trigger warnings allow for inclusivity in the learning environment.

I agree. But it's also fair to ask if they've gone too far.

Some psychologists believe they have, but that's not to say they shouldn't be issued where appropriate. The real concern is, as a much-cited article written by psychology professor Richard J McNally in 2016 points out, the debate about trigger warnings ignores the fact that "trauma is common, but PTSD is rare".

The reality is, life can be anxiety provoking. We all feel anxious at times. Psychological distress is normal and one of the safest ways of learning how to deal with this is vicariously through education, observation of others and acquiring knowledge about the people and the world and from a range of otherwise safe sources.

The problem with trigger warnings is that if you utter it often enough, the prophecy becomes true. Picture: iStock
The problem with trigger warnings is that if you utter it often enough, the prophecy becomes true. Picture: iStock

Treating everyone as though they're fragile and might break if a difficult or confronting topic or image is raised can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Utter it often enough, and it becomes true. Hence you have 16-year-olds walking out of maths exams over calorie questions.

There's no doubt trauma is individualised and more often than not, it's experienced by the more vulnerable.

For those suffering from PTSD and anxiety disorders for example, it doesn't always take a war/rape/abuse scene or story to trigger a deep response. It can be as simple as a smell, touch, sound.

While I think it's important to acknowledge and show compassion towards those who continue to suffer from past (and current) trauma, I also worry about the rush to claim victim status that some people appear to actively embrace. To conflate normal anxiety/distress with mental illness.

As unpopular as it is to state, there is a hierarchy.

Over-issuing trigger warnings, teaching everyone to be alert lest they're disturbed/traumatised etc by what's about to unfold, not only trivialises genuine psychological damage and those who are trying to survive, but also encourages avoidance in those who would most benefit from tackling life's darkness head on.

Dr Karen Brooks is an honorary senior researcher at IASH at the University of Queensland.