Confusion about mental health and trigger warnings

People are reposting yet another article about how trigger warnings are ruining college by allowing students to avoid material that makes them uncomfortable, and possibly by making them more anxious and prone to traumatization via the power of suggestion.

This one indicates that while people with anxiety or depression should get cognitive-behavioral therapy to challenge their irrational thoughts, catering to their fears will worsen them, and possibly create anxiety in people who didn’t previously have it.

Thanks, journalists, for your amateur mental health advice.

. . . .

These articles love to cite exposure therapy as the opposite of trigger warnings.

To quote Scott Alexander (a psychiatrist) on the inadvisability of springing “treatment” on people:

Psychotherapists treat arachnophobia with exposure therapy, too. . . . Finding an arachnophobic person, and throwing a bucket full of tarantulas at them while shouting “I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” works less well.

And this seems to be the arachnophobe’s equivalent of the PTSD “advice” in the Pacific Standard. There are two problems with its approach. The first is that it avoids the carefully controlled, anxiety-minimizing setup of psychotherapy.


One other thing I think people might not understand, is that exposure therapy is really intense and long. Reading or talking about something in class is not exposure therapy, and even if you were engaged in exposure therapy it’s entirely possible that a particular class discussion would still not be a good idea for you.

An example of what exposure therapy is not: I once spent a school year living where the most convenient route to where Jeff lived was across a railroad bridge. It was safe to walk across (it had a sidewalk-type thing next to the tracks, so even if a train crossed I would not have been hit) but passed over a deep gorge with treetops far below.  I’m afraid of heights, and I found this terrifying every single time I did it, which was a couple of times a week for eight months. It never became less frightening. If I were doing exposure therapy I might have spent time on the bridge every day for progressively longer times. This experience makes me doubt that reading about or discussing a topic that someone finds disturbing, even repeatedly, will make them find it less disturbing.

. . . .

Another mistake the articles make is the assumption that trigger warnings always result in readers simply avoiding material. Miri Mogilevsky does an excellent piece on “Ways I have used trigger warnings“:

  1. [ignores, continues reading]
  2. “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
  3. “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
  4. “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
  5. “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
  6. “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
  7. “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
  8. “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”

. . . .

There are some valid points in these articles. Requesting that disturbing material be eliminated from curricula, as have apparently been made at some colleges (where? the articles don’t say), are too much. But the authors apparently find it problematic that anyone would want a trigger warning on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which makes me question whether the authors have actually read Metamorphoses and whether they seriously think rape survivors should get no warning before reading the story of Philomela.

There’s a legitimate concern that certain triggers are “warned” for (violence, sexual assault) even though lots of people have triggers that other people don’t think of as such. But this seems a bit like refusing to label a really common allergen like soy because some people have rarer allergies like to mangoes.

I’ve heard some concern that popularizing trigger warnings creates problems for people with actual mental health problems, because their very legitimate requests get conflated with “irritating liberals asking for stuff they don’t really need.” But I think this problem has more to do with articles like these than about the actual trigger warnings, and it’s unclear how to somehow provide trigger warnings only to people who need them.

It’s also not clear to me that you need a diagnosis like PTSD to have a good reason to avoid disturbing content. Since having a child, I find content about bad things happening to children painful in a way I never did before. As Miri points out, I’m not avoiding these scenarios in order not to think about the content. The content already plays inside my mind far more often than I would like, and seeing photos of it is not something that’s usually a good idea. I will sometimes use it to motivate myself (for example, to contact my representatives about allowing more Syrian refugees in), but I’m not willing to do it for no reason.


5 thoughts on “Confusion about mental health and trigger warnings

  1. Keller

    I’m a firm believer in trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are wonderful things. I get worried when I see speakers banned, or people arguing that speakers should be banned, or conversations critical of admins shut down, for being “potentially triggering.” Popularizing trigger warnings as important, I believe, goes hand in hand with shutting down discussions that other people are having for being triggering. That’s why I, at least, am skeptical.

  2. m50d

    The absence of trigger warnings is not an intervention; quite the opposite. The presence of trigger warnings is not therapy any more than their absence, and it’s legitimate to ask whether trigger warnings are helping people or just enabling them to make things worse for themselves. I am not aware of any concrete evidence either way.

  3. Eggo

    The imposition of trigger warnings just makes it easier to eliminate material. The same people did get Ovid removed from the curriculum once they won. There is no such thing as compromise if one party is going to stop until they get everything they want.

    Remember how “parental warning labels” weren’t a tool of censorship, and then the same people who imposed them started pushing stores not to sell CDs with the labels?

  4. Jadehawk

    “it’s legitimate to ask whether trigger warnings are helping people or just enabling them to make things worse for themselves”

    this is always asserted but I’ve yet to see an actual sensible argument for how that would work. how is the ability to prepare for a traumatizing topic making things worse?

  5. Jadehawk

    “the same people did get Ovid removed from the curriculum once they won. ”

    no, actually, Columbia university decided that in order to avoid having to use the dreaded TWs it rather remove Metamorphoses from the curriculum; which is on them, and a ridiculous overreaction to what had been requested by students.



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