A trauma trigger is a psychological stimulus that prompts recall of a previous traumatic experience. The stimulus itself need not be frightening or traumatic and may be only indirectly or superficially reminiscent of an earlier traumatic incident, such as a scent or a piece of clothing. Triggers can be subtle and difficult to anticipate. A trauma trigger may also be called a trauma stimulus, a trauma stressor or a trauma reminder. The process of connecting a traumatic experience to a trauma trigger is called traumatic coupling.
Avoiding a trauma trigger is a classic behavioral symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a treatable and usually temporary condition in which people sometimes experience overwhelming emotional or physical symptoms when something reminds them of, or "triggers" the memory of, a traumatic event. Long-term avoidance of triggers increases the likelihood that the affected person will develop a disabling level of PTSD. Identifying and addressing trauma triggers is an important part of treating PTSD.
A trigger warning is a message presented to an audience about the contents of a book or other media, to warn them that it contains potentially distressing content. Scientists with knowledge in this area and research on the topic suggest that trigger warnings may be counterproductive and actually increase anxiety and PTSD symptoms.
The trigger can be anything that provokes fear or distressing memories in the affected person, and which the associates with a traumatic experience. Some common triggers are:
- certain times of day – for example, sunset or sunrise
- certain times of year or specific dates – for example, autumn weather that resembles the affected person's experience of the weather during the September 11 attacks, or the anniversary of a traumatic experience
- sights – for example, a fallen tree or a light shining at a particular angle
- places – for example, a bathroom, or all bathrooms
- a person, especially a person who was present during a traumatic event or resembles someone involved in that event in some respect
- an argument
- a particular odor – such as freshly mown grass, or the fragrance of an aftershave product
- a particular taste – such as the food eaten during or shortly before a traumatic experience
- a particular sound – such as a helicopter or a song
- a particular texture
- a sensation on the skin – such as the feeling of a wristwatch resembling the feeling of handcuffs, or sexual touching for survivors of sexual assault
- the position of the body
- physical pain
- emotions – such as feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, or not in control
- a particular situation – for example, being in a crowded place
The trigger is usually personal and specific. However, it need not be closely related to the actual experience. For example, after the Gulf War, some Israelis experienced the sound of an accelerating motorbike as a trigger, which they associated with the sound of sirens they heard during the war, even though the resemblance between the two sounds is limited.
Trigger warnings are warnings that a work contains writing, images, or concepts that may be distressing to some people. The term and concept originated at feminist websites that were discussing violence against women, and then spread to other areas, such as print media and university courses. Although it is widely recognized that any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, feeling or sensation could be a trigger, trigger warnings are most commonly presented on a relatively narrow range of material, especially content about sexual abuse and mental illness (such as suicide, eating disorders, and self-injury).
The mental health effects of trigger warnings have not been well studied. In cautioning university faculty against the widespread use of trigger warnings, Richard McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, noted that "Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder." Similarly, Metin Basoglu, a psychiatrist specializing in trauma research, said that "instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, [the media] should be encouraging exposure. Most trauma victims avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That's not good."
In a study directly assessing the effects of the provision of trigger warnings, it was found that, among people who were not currently experiencing effects of trauma, the provision of trigger warnings somewhat increased the participants' anxiety and sense of being psychologically vulnerable after reading a passage of text that included potentially disturbing content. The warnings also reduced the participants' perception of their own and other people's natural psychological resilience (the idea that, despite the near-universality of traumatic experiences and the potential of a short-term acute stress reaction, the person experiencing trauma will be okay in the end). A low belief in personal psychological resilience is a risk factor for developing PTSD in the future.
Now that trigger warnings have appeared in other media, Jay Caspian Kang, best known for his sports writing at Grantland, accused these warnings of "reducing a work of literature to its ugliest plot points".
In higher education
In 2014, students at UC Santa Barbara passed a resolution in support of mandatory trigger warnings for classes that could contain potentially upsetting material. Professors would be required to alert students of such material and allow them to skip classes that could make them feel uncomfortable. A professor at Texas A&M University argues "the purpose of trigger warnings is not to cause students to avoid traumatic content, but to prepare them for it, and in extreme circumstances to provide alternate modes of learning."
The American Association of University Professors has issued a report critical of trigger warnings in university contexts, stating that "The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual." Angus Johnston, a history professor at the City University of New York, said that trigger warnings can be a part of "sound pedagogy", noting that students encountering potentially triggering material are "coming to it as whole people with a wide range of experiences, and that the journey we're going on together may at times be painful. It's not coddling them to acknowledge that. In fact, it's just the opposite."
|Look up Appendix:Glossary of traumatology in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Acute stress reaction
- Content rating
- Emotional dysregulation
- Flashback (psychology)
- Motion Picture Association of America film rating system
- Parental Advisory
- Repressed memory
- Survivor guilt
- Thematic elements
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