A Potentially Dangerous Situation – The Problem With Trigger Signs 

Warnings about potential triggers are becoming increasingly commonplace across the world’s academic institutions. The Globe Theatre in London issued a trigger warning for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 2017, stating that the play “contains representations of suicide, scenes of violence, and quotes to drug use,” among other things. 

The most comprehensive survey done to date in the United States found that approximately half of all college professors use trigger signs before presenting content that may be upsetting to students. A poll conducted earlier this year in the United Kingdom found that 86% of undergrads there are in favor of the use of trigger warnings. 

Policies can differ from university to university in Australia. In 2017, the Monash University Student Association made a recommendation to implement trigger warnings for classes that include “emotionally confronting material.” As part of a pilot program, warnings were implemented in 15 classes that met the criteria for the recommendation. 

In comparison, the usage of trigger warnings is frowned upon at Griffith University.   In 2016, the Network of Women Students Australia posted online (but has since removed) a listing of possible triggers that included everything from rape, sexual abuse, suicide, physical contact, insects, puking, cadavers, skulls, and skeletons. 

Despite the widespread use of trigger warnings, there is surprisingly little agreement regarding the degree to which they are, in actuality, an effective approach for reducing the risk of direct trauma media coverage, subjective trauma, and re-traumatization. 

The purpose of a recent meta-analysis that was carried out by researchers from Australia was to perform a statistical synthesis of the research that had previously been done on the feelings and comprehension of participants after the use of a trigger warning. According to the findings of the study, the use of trigger warnings has no discernible impact on an individual’s emotional reaction to the content they have been alerted about (whether it be favorable or unfavorable), their ability to avoid this material, or their ability to comprehend the text itself. 

The research teams Victoria Bridgland, Payton Jones, and Benjamin Bellet came to the conclusion that “trigger warnings are pointless” and shouldn’t be used as a mental health tool”. 

Associate Professor Melanie Takarangi of Flinders University, who has released numerous research on trigger warnings, recently stated to Nine newspapers that “there is no significant difference” in how people react to something regardless of whether or not they obtained a trigger warning. She stated that such warnings only served to increase people’s levels of anticipatory anxiety. 

We carried out a comprehensive literature review in which we compiled and synthesized the existing qualitative research in this field in order to gain a better understanding of the degree to which trigger warnings are an effective approach for assisting university students in coping with traumatic experiences. Systematic reviews necessitate the use of meticulous scientific investigation methods, with the end goal being to produce results that are dependable, trustworthy, and objective. According to the findings of our research, students may be put in danger by trigger warnings. 

In our analysis of twenty studies that were published between 2010 and 2020 and subjected to rigorous academic review, we came to the conclusion that trigger warnings have the potential to exacerbate pre-existing stress factors and exacerbate maladaptive behaviors. Both of these factors have the potential to undermine students’ autonomy and their capacity to cope with potential distress. 

For example, significant evidence from a two randomized regulated trial of 451 trauma survivors discovered that giving trigger warnings before reading disturbing literature induced the respondents to view their traumatic experience as playing a more significant role in defining who they are. Both in the short and the long term, this could end up being detrimental for people who have survived traumatic experiences. 

It’s interesting to note that a number of studies have raised concerns about the possibility that trigger warnings could restrict academic freedom and free speech during classroom discussions. According to the findings of several studies, providing students with trigger warnings can improve their emotional well-being by empowering them to prepare for potentially challenging conversations. However, trigger warnings aren’t an efficient method for dealing with trauma when they are employed in isolation or a merely symbolic manner. 

“Some pupils come to the classroom with their own experiences, which can aggravate the challenging nature of the course,” Dr. Bryce acknowledges the inclusion of challenging topics, case studies, and scenarios in her postgraduate course on child abuse and neglect. 

Trauma is unavoidable for those working in higher education. According to the findings of a study conducted in the United Kingdom, more than half of all first-year college students had previously been involved in at least one negative experience. According to the findings of an Irish study, the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate the psychological distress of people who reported having at least one negative childhood experience. 

According to findings from neurobiological research, traumatic experiences can impede the development of regions of the brain that are affiliated with learning, memory, and language. The capacity of an individual to participate in formal education is put at risk by traumatic experiences, and such experiences are a strong indicator of academic failure. 

Policy in higher education needs to recognize the traumatic experiences that students have had in the past and take into account the effects of trauma on students’ ability to persist, progress, and succeed. 

Educators should implement a holistic, trauma-informed structure that can be used across all subject areas. This framework should promote resilience and recovery by taking a skills-based approach to the process of adapting and building capacity. For instance, incorporating introspective activities into a syllabus can assist students in developing strategies for dealing with potentially traumatic content, such as increased self-awareness and resilience. 

When included as a component of such a comprehensive strategy, trigger warnings have the potential to serve as an invaluable resource for helping with the treatment and reduction of trauma exposure. This was the overarching finding of our review. However, placing sole reliance on trigger warnings, particularly as a hypocritical show of concern for those who have experienced trauma, does far more damage than good.