Life is filled with good intentions gone wrong, and trigger warnings are no exception. I believe trigger warnings are good intentions gone wrong.
In the name of protecting trauma victims speech has been censored, minds have been closed, and academic environments are suffering. All in the name of helping the distressed, mind you.
The trigger warning crowd, for the most part, isn’t secretly trying to censor speech. They’re running on a mindset that sees certain words as dangerous to certain people. Unfortunately, their mindset isn’t based on scientific research.
How do we help them realize trigger warnings are dangerous? We can stop badgering them on how childish their views are for starters, and instead give them an alternative to helping trauma victims. This is where the research comes in.
Trigger warnings are not only harmful to trauma victims, they’re based on assumptions that don’t match the data.
Most Trauma Survivors Don’t Develop PTSD
A survey of 2,181 adults in southeastern Michigan found that almost 90% of them had experienced some form of trauma (rape, natural disasters, serious accidents, or learning of the sudden death of a loved one). However, only 9% of trauma survivors developed PTSD. The study found that whether a survivor developed PTSD was determined on certain risk and resilience factors.
— “The Stressor Criterion in DSM-IV Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: An Empirical Investigation,” Breslau, N., & Kessler, R. C., Biological Psychiatry, 2001
In a world where trigger warning advocates assume PTSD is common among trauma victims, it’s helpful to remember that that’s not the case. Not every emotional reaction to a traumatic situation is a sign of PTSD.
PTSD is More Common Among Sexual Assault Survivors
In a 2013 study, interviewers asked 34,653 American adults “were you ever sexually assaulted, molested, or raped, or did you ever experience unwanted sexual activity?” Fourteen percent of women interviewed replied yes, while almost 3% of men said yes. Out of those women who replied “yes,” 43% experienced PTSD, while 17% of men who said “yes” experienced it. Compare that with the occurrence of PTSD in severe accidents (women 16%, men 6%) and natural disasters (women 7%, men 3%), you find PTSD much higher in instances of sexual assault.
— “Influence of Predispositions on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Does It Vary by Trauma Severity?” Breslau, N., Troost, J. P., Bohnert, K., & Luo, Z.,Psychological Medicine, 2013
Many Rape Survivors Recover Within Months of Their Assault
A study examined 95 female survivors of rape or attempted rape over the course of 12 weeks. They were assessed for PTSD soon after the assault and then for every week afterwards. 94% of women showed signs of PTSD for the first two weeks after the assault. But it steadily dropped throughout the next 3 months, from 65% at one month, to 47% at 3 months. Whether a woman experienced PTSD after 3 months could be predicted with a “high degree of accuracy” at one month. Women who’s PTSD symptoms decreased by week 3 got significantly better over time.
— “A Prospective Examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Rape Victims,” Rothbaum, B. O., Foa, E. B., Riggs, D. S., Murdock, T., & Walsh, W.,Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1992
Obviously most sexual assault survivors are able to overcome PTSD shortly after the traumatic experience. Trigger warnings are based on the assumption that a woman who’s gone through a traumatic experience can be triggered later. Not all women experience PTSD after a sexual assault, nor do those who do experience it for the rest of their lives.
Trigger warnings assume that survivors of assault are inherently victims, not survivors.
Avoiding Triggers Is More Dangerous Than Confronting Them
In an analysis by the Institute of Medicine, they found that exposure therapy is the most effective in treating PTSD. Developed by clinical psychologists Edna B. Foa and Barbara O. Rothbaum. Patients experiencing PTSD are told to close their eyes and recount the experience in first-person present tense. They do this until the traumatic memories become less emotionally distressing. Working with a therapist, patients begin to deal with progressively more triggering situations that’ll confront them in real life. Eventually the fear subsides and the situation fails to trigger them.
— “Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: An Assessment of the Evidence,” The National Academies Press, Institute of Medicine, Washington, D.C., 2008
We all have those tasks that used to scare us or make us uncomfortable. They were unfamiliar, new, hard, etc. But with continued practice we got over the uncomfortableness, eventually getting used to the task. The same is true with triggers.
Triggers lose their power once you break through the fear and pain. They stop being impassable giants.
Interweaving Trauma Into Identity is Harmful for Survivors
One study examined this theory by administering a Centrality of Events Scale (CES) to women who experienced sexual assault. The CES analyzes how important a specific event is to that individual’s identity, including how the event is viewed in their autobiographical memory, whether they view it as a turning point in their life, and how it shapes their views of the future. The study found that among the women who’s abuse was more central to their identity the worse their PTSD was. A strong connection between their abuse and their outlook on the future tended to bring worse PTSD symptoms.
— “Trauma Centrality and PTSD Symptom Severity in Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” Robinaugh, D. J., & McNally, R. J., Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2011
This study shows that connecting your abuse with your identity is harmful. Acknowledging your abuse without letting it define you fosters long-term resilience against PTSD.
Trigger warnings do the opposite. They engrain the identity of the victim with the trauma they experienced. “I was raped a few years ago so I can’t read this book because it triggers me.” Trauma-centered identities keep people trapped in a nasty cycle of avoidance and disturbance. Trigger warnings only reinforce that cycle.
I get that people want to help those who’ve suffered. But maybe we should focus on helping survivors confront their fears, not run away from them.