Last September, The Atlantic published a now much debated article about the supposed coddling of American college students. The authors lumped several issues together as evidence of a purported trend towards intellectual laziness and the manipulative use of emotions as an excuse to avoid critical discourse and limit freedom of speech. Among these issues were trigger warnings.

This August and September, in anticipation of a new school year, the topic has resurged. Schools including the University of Chicago and Brown University have weighed in on all sides. Social media users everywhere have posted and reposted various opinions. Indeed the term “trigger warning” has become hotly debated, and generally more widely used and misused than ever before. In all of this debate, I have seen a deep and discouraging misunderstanding of what trigger warnings, or even triggers, are. The concept of triggers originates from the study and treatment of psychological trauma; and the function of trigger warnings is to accommodate survivors of traumatic events so that they may participate in activities as fully as possible. As a trauma therapist, I have some things to say about what trauma triggers actually are, and how a better understanding of this could enlighten the current discourse in academia.

So what is a trauma trigger?  It is any stimulus that serves as a reminder cue of the traumatic event a person has survived, setting off a trigger response. When a trauma survivor experiences this trigger response, or “is triggered,” a cascade of automatic, ingrained neurological sequences is set off. This cascade can be altered through work with a trained and licensed therapist; but that happens over time. In the moment of triggering, the traumatized person is unable to control their own neurological response. This is not personal weakness, this is evolutionary neuroscience. A traumatized person’s brain responds to a trigger the same way that all of our brains respond to real threats. The very important evolutionary task of survival takes precedent over every day functions, and survival neurotransmitters flood the brain’s synapses in such high amounts that they create a traffic jam that severely impairs the flow of neural signals to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that usually produces rational decision making and higher order thought. This impairment makes it extremely difficult for that individual to engage in any kind of intellectual pursuit until their neurological system is returned to baseline; which, current research shows, can take up to 4 days. (Campbell, 2012) Intellectual laziness this is not. In addition to prefrontal cortex impairment, other common effects of this neurological cascade include physical panic attacks, flashbacks, and dissociation, or loss of awareness of one’s current surroundings.

The authors of The Atlantic piece refer to trigger warnings as “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.”  This is a vague and inaccurate definition of the triggering process and effects I have described above. At various other points in the article they equate trigger warnings with a desire not to be offended by differing opinions. To be clear, a trigger reaction is not a choice, nor an opinion, and it is significantly more than simply a strong emotional response.

The Atlantic writers also claim that trigger warnings serve the purpose of allowing “students who have been previously victimized… (to) choose to avoid…works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”  This is once again inaccurate and incomplete. Avoidance is only one of a great many choices that a trauma survivor may make in response to a trigger warning. I have worked with many survivors of rape, incest, and domestic violence who knew they needed to face a triggering event on the horizon; for example a survivor of rape anticipating needing to testify against her attacker in court, or a survivor of childhood abuse who knew that a psychology course he was taking would cover the topic of incest. I have had the honor to guide and support these resilient, determined, traumatized individuals who have each made their own very personal choices about how to cope with such situations. Some have indeed chosen avoidance. Others have strategized many unique and brilliant coping skills that allowed them to remain grounded in the present moment while facing a potential trigger. By having the advanced notice needed to prepare these coping skills, these trauma survivors were able to participate in events in a way that they would not have been able to had they not had such a warning. Sometimes, knowing what is coming and having your coping skill pre-planned can make the difference between prefrontal cortex impairment versus simply having a strong emotional response. What trigger warnings actually do for trauma survivors is give them advanced notice of a potentially triggering situation so that they may use that information to make the best choice for them.

Without even acknowledging the myriad other choices that trauma survivors may make besides avoidance, or acknowledging that it is their right to make such choices for themselves, those who oppose trigger warnings lament that avoidance is a poor choice because it does not contribute to the actual healing of PTSD. They elevate the failure to provide trigger warnings to the noble cause of actually helping trauma survivors by subjecting them to “exposure therapy.”

“If you want this woman to retain her fear for her life, you should help her avoid (triggers.) But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should…guide her through a process known as exposure therapy.” Write the authors of The Atlantic piece. (Lukainoff & Haidt, 2015)

This is a terrible, dangerous, unethical idea. Exposure therapy is, indeed, an effective technique for treating some aspects of trauma, which some trauma survivors may decide to utilize by seeking out the help of a properly trained and licensed therapist,. But the “you” to whom this article refers should not be making any such sweeping decisions for others. Even if you are a trained and licensed therapist, you are bound by a code of ethics which stresses the importance of informed consent to services. The idea that professors should practice exposure therapy on their students instead of providing trigger warnings is akin to suggesting that, when a student with a physical disability attends a class, instead of providing accessibility accommodations, professors should get up in the middle of class and perform physical therapy on the student. Ridiculous, no?  Most professors do not have the training to perform either physical therapy or exposure therapy properly, and thus trying to give such treatment without training would be utterly ineffective and could potentially do a great deal of harm. Not to mention how humiliating this could be for the student subjected to treatment they did not ask for or consent to in front of an entire class of their peers, or how time consuming this would be for the professor to try to do while simultaneously teaching their class. What is really more draining of a professor’s time and attention: providing a simple trigger warning, or performing therapy during class?

When a professor provides a trigger warning, all they need do is simply WARN students of what is to come, then proceed as usual. Trigger warnings do not, as many have claimed, amount to censorship, because the triggering material will still be presented and discussed. An example would be a note contained on a class syllabus, and repeated verbally, “Trigger Warning:  The reading and discussion on this date will involve themes of sexual assault. If you have experienced sexual violence and need support to participate in this discussion, please reach out to the campus counseling center at ###-#### or the Confidential Advisor at ###-####.”  As noted above, with such a warning provided, the survivor of trauma may still choose to engage in the discussion, but will be doing so in an informed, prepared way, whereas they may not be able to participate if there is no trigger warning, due to the impairing effects of trigger reactions on prefrontal cortex functioning.

Moreover, the decision of when and whether to provide a trigger warning has nothing to do with censoring or espousing particular religious, political, or other ideas or doctrines. It has only to do with whether material is related to traumatic events like violence. But this has been a bone of contention for many who report a trend toward students requesting trigger warnings for material they see as unrelated to trauma. This is where education and specificity about triggers is of the utmost importance. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, let’s educate ourselves on all sides of this debate about the difference between flashbacks and opinions. Trigger warnings are warranted for material related to trauma, but not for material which is simply likely to be met with opinionated debate. Sometimes these things overlap, but they are not the same. And if you still think that trigger warnings are a “slippery slope” because they could be abused by students without trauma histories, I will give you one more metaphor: should we stop building wheelchair ramps simply because students who can climb the stairs might choose the ramp instead?

Content written by Beth Enterkin.

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