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The Dangers of Trigger Warnings

THE DANGERS OF TRIGGER WARNINGS

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This project is a requirement of the GOA Abnormal Psychology Course. Using the process of design thinking, a challenge in the world of mental health was identified, interviews and research were undertaken, and a solution prototype was developed. Below you will find information about the identified area of concern and my proposed solution. Please feel free to provide feedback on this prototype, using questions such as “How might we…”, “What if….?”, “I wonder….”, “I like…”, and “I wish.” Keep the comments positive, please. For more information on the process of Design Thinking, click here.

 

BACKGROUND:

For years I’ve learned about anxiety through treatment of my own anxiety disorders. When I first learned of trigger warnings – and when they started to be implemented in my own school, as well as social media websites that I frequented – I found the logic behind them to be counter-intuitive to everything I’d been taught; it’s a form of avoidance, simply stated, which I know only makes fears stronger. If I had avoided my OCD forever, my life would be controlled by it by now. I could see the argument that people who had undergone severe traumas in their life are not prepared to be exposed to their fears in their daily lives. I wasn’t sure that this meant schools should be implementing these broad warnings, however. My question was whether trigger warnings are more helpful or harmful to students’ mental well-being, and if the answer was no, then I wanted to make a change in my own community.

For those of you who are less familiar with the topic, trigger warnings are essentially a caution for a particular subject (or “trigger”) that may be upsetting to some people. For my project, I focused in on trigger warnings on high school and college campuses (i.e. for literature, guest speakers, art work, or class material) rather than mainstream media trigger warnings regarding TV shows or news articles. Typical trigger warnings in schools are for subjects such as sexual abuse, rape, suicide, and self-harm, however the scope of trigger warnings expands every day. Some schools have even begun to alert students to material that contains racism, sexism, homophobia, alcohol and drugs, guns, etc. The goal in implementing these warnings is to protect students from distress by forewarning them of the topic and allowing them to opt-out of confronting that material if it is personally very upsetting to a student.

I found, in my research and empathy interview with Dr. Kristy Ludwig, that my skepticism around trigger warnings was backed by science. Many studies have been done to test the different effects of trigger warnings, and based on this (as well as the fundamental knowledge of how anxiety is treated/how it gets worse) it seems to be the consensus among mental health professionals and researchers that trigger warnings have a number of negative impacts that greatly outweigh any positive impacts (see Sources Cited below). Even though they have good intentions, they do more harming than hurting, as I say in my pamphlet.


THE CHALLENGE:

My identified challenge was that schools are teaching kids to rely on trigger warnings to curb anxiety rather than encouraging healthy anxiety management practices. Trigger warnings are a controversial issue that is quickly spreading to high schools and colleges around the country. Based on my research and empathy interview, this means that kids are only going to get more anxious, and perhaps even repress more trauma. Most people don’t know how really anxiety works and assume that avoidance is always okay since it’s our instinct to avoid distress. I wanted to first clarify this misconception in my project, and then use that to explain why trigger warnings are misguided. In my empathy interview, I talked to Dr. Kristy Ludwig about her professional opinion on trigger warnings and what I ultimately took away was that, based on everything we know about the way anxiety works, they really do inflict more harm than good on students’ mental health. She was able to provide me with what she thought were reasonable alternatives, which I touched on in my pamphlet.


THE SOLUTION:

I thought that the best way to spread information about anxiety and the dangers of trigger warnings was to make cleanly designed, concise tri-fold pamphlets containing essential information about these topics that teachers and students should know. This way, I don’t think it will come off as pretentious or as if I’m lecturing people; I’m just informing them on a topic I know a lot about and have studied. Everyone has two minutes to read through a pamphlet and I can easily put them in students’ and teachers’ mailboxes. I thought this was the most effective way for me to help my project’s identified problem given that I’m still just a high school student.

View a live preview here.


WHAT’S NEXT?

Trigger warnings are a very controversial issue and I’ve heard many arguments in favor of them (though none from mental health professionals). Feel free to share your personal opinion based on what you’ve read in my pamphlet and what you already know! I’m curious to see what you guys think or whether trigger warnings are popping up in your schools. With issues like this, it’s extremely valuable to get feedback from people with different experiences and points of view.

I might try to print out copies of these pamphlets and place them in student and teacher mailboxes at school, but for right now I’m just spreading around my hard copy of the pamphlet among my friends, and so far it’s been effective in convincing them. If you are ever talking with teachers or friends about the topic of trigger warnings, you can download my pamphlet, print it out, and hand it to whoever you think would benefit from reading it.


SOURCES CITED:

Filipovic, Jill. “We’ve Gone Too Far with ‘trigger Warnings’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Mar. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/05/trigger-warnings-can-be-counterproductive>.

Ludwig, Kristy, Ph.D. Telephone interview. 7 Feb. 2017.

Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/>.

Maeli, John-Pierre. “Studies Show ‘Trigger Warnings’ Are Counterproductive.” Red Millennial. Red Millennial, 24 Apr. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <https://redmillennial.com/2016/04/24/studies-show-trigger-warnings-are-counterproductive/>.

Standard, Pacific. “Hazards Ahead: The Problem With Trigger Warnings, According to the Research.” Pacific Standard. Pacific Standard, 20 May 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <https://psmag.com/hazards-ahead-the-problem-with-trigger-warnings-according-to-the-research-4f220f7e6c7e>.

Waters, Florence. “Trigger Warnings: More Harm than Good?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 04 Oct. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11106670/Trigger-warnings-more-harm-than-good.html>.

 

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COMMENTS: 8
  1. April 27, 2017 by Anne Bingham

    Thanks for presenting the complexity of trigger warnings. It’s important for people to understand that there are different views and approaches, and that each person might react in a different way. We should not assume that trigger warnings are always the best way to go.

    • May 01, 2017 by Ana Bogdanovich

      Thank you for taking the time to check out my project, Ms. Bingham! And I agree, trigger warnings are a really complicated issue and all sides of it (such as the view I was advocating in my project) need to be taken into account.

  2. April 28, 2017 by max bethel

    Thank you. I love how you backed your work by scientific research, increasing the level of credibility within you project, rather than spouting off personal beliefs. I find trigger warnings to be an interesting idea especially now that I am about to head into a college setting, which at the moment, is a turbulent area. I think this project does a great job, and proposes an interesting idea for what can be done in place of trigger warnings.

    • May 01, 2017 by Ana Bogdanovich

      Thank you, I wanted to make a point of making this project about psychological facts rather than personal opinion. I’m glad you liked it!

  3. April 28, 2017 by Richard Kassissieh

    Ana, I always appreciate being challenged to think differently. Thank you for sharing the results of your research. I will definitely keep them in my mind going forward.

    • May 01, 2017 by Ana Bogdanovich

      I’m so glad that this has opened up a new point of view for you and I really appreciate you taking the time to explore my project, Mr. Kassissieh!

  4. April 30, 2017 by Emil B

    Thanks for the presentation. I agree with you on this. By issuing trigger warnings, it does not let people think for themselves and speak out. The nature of it simply goes against anything in real life situations. I don’t think trigger warnings are necessarily all bad unless the topic is really THAT sensitive, but the overuse of trigger warnings promotes an inherit bias and can turn into something extremely Orwellian. Cool project, enjoyed the read!

    • May 01, 2017 by Ana Bogdanovich

      While I was looking at trigger warnings from a more psychological standpoint, I agree that trigger warnings have negative social/societal aspects as well. I’m really glad you enjoyed it and thank you for reading!

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