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Trigger Warnings: Do They Help or Harm?

By Christa Banister 

In addition to feeling overwhelmed and distressed, triggers often inhibit our ability to remain fully present in the moment.

As people are beginning to open up more about their mental health struggles — an important development during a worldwide pandemic, the aftermath of #MeToo and seemingly endless heartbreaking news, day after day — you may have noticed something new before the opening credits of certain TV shows and movies. 

A trigger warning.

Briefly highlighting parts of the storyline that may be distressing for certain viewers, a trigger warning may point out rape, assault, childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, loss of a loved one, depiction of an eating disorder, or even suicidal ideation and self-harm. The idea is to provide a quick head’s up about what may cause some viewers to recall something traumatic that happened to them, which is classified as a trigger. 

For some, the warning may be enough to change the channel or exit the theater. But for those who have a firsthand traumatic experience and continue to watch, are these well-intentioned warnings more helpful or harmful? 

Triggers are Real and Vary from Person to Person

Coping with PTSD Triggers - Willow House for Women Being “triggered” has become somewhat of a popular catchphrase in recent years, with it even used jokingly sometimes in memes and social media. Consequently, some may attribute someone who has legitimate triggers to being too sensitive or too fragile for handling real life.

The problem with that is triggers have real-world effects on our lives and ability to function, according to experts. In addition to feeling overwhelmed and distressed, triggers often inhibit our ability to remain fully present in the moment. 

As a result, it’s possible to take a step back into old thought patterns and behaviors that can be harmful in real-time. And for those of us living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), watching or reading about a similar traumatic event we’ve experienced can transport us back in time through flashbacks, which can be terrifying.

While there’s no doubt that triggers exist and materialize differently from person to person, research hasn’t conclusively shown that trigger warnings help reduce distress. One study concluded they were “trivially helpful” at reducing stress and intrusive thoughts. Another study conducted among college students concluded they were neither helpful nor hurtful as the ones who saw a warning about disturbing graphic car crash footage beforehand weren’t any less distressed than the ones who witnessed the same footage with no warning. Yet another study actually found trigger warnings to be harmful as some participants indicated an increase in anxiety and perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma in response to seeing them.

One caveat noted with trigger warning research, however, is that the repeated use of trigger warnings may be helpful for those who suffer from PTSD. Avoiding negative material is just one of many coping mechanisms. 

Coping with PTSD Triggers

Learning how to confront these PTSD triggers when they arise also takes away a little of their power, which is why therapies and coping strategies that are tailored to someone’s triggers — and how they feel about them — is essential.

In The Me You Can’t See documentary series that featured Prince Harry, Oprah Winfrey confessed she once believed that PTSD was a condition exclusive to soldiers who’ve returned from combat.

But as she and so many others have discovered, anyone who has gone through a traumatic event can experience PTSD. And those PTSD flashbacks, the re-experiencing of symptoms, can be triggered by any number of means — even something as small as a particular smell, landmark, loud sound, or even hearing a certain word. 

Because of their spontaneous nature and ability to ignite a fight-or-flight response, PTSD triggers often give us a fine-tuned awareness of what’s triggering so we can have a measure of control over avoiding them. 

Naturally, there is a delicate balance between avoidance and fear as a long-term strategy. Learning how to confront these PTSD triggers when they arise also takes away a little of their power, which is why therapies and coping strategies that are tailored to someone’s triggers — and how they feel about them — is essential.

Here to Help

For more information on how you or someone you love can begin to heal from emotional trauma that can impact so many areas of your life, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the caring professionals at Willow House at The Meadows.