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The Trouble With Trigger Warnings in a Dangerous World

Are trigger warnings always healthy? "Proceed with caution," new research says.

Key points

  • Proponents of trigger warnings argue that they provide a vital safety net for those with trauma histories.
  • Critics contend they may hinder personal growth and foster an overly sensitive culture.
  • Recent research across multiple studies shows that trigger warnings may end up increasing anxiety.
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

In an era defined by the breakneck speed of flowing information across media platforms, the debate around trigger warnings has become increasingly prominent.

Trigger warnings, or brief content advisories that alert individuals to potentially distressing or triggering material, have ignited discussions across academia, social media, and daily life. Proponents argue that they provide a vital safety net for individuals with trauma histories, while critics contend they may hinder personal growth and foster an overly sensitive culture.

The Origin of Trigger Warnings

The origins of trigger warnings can be traced back to the feminist movement of the 1970s when activists recognized the need to prepare survivors of sexual assault for potentially distressing content in literature and discussions. Over time, this concept evolved, expanding its application to various forms of media and content. Today, trigger warnings are used across multiple platforms, from college classrooms and news articles to social media posts and streaming services.

The Benefits of Trigger Warnings

  1. Empowerment and Autonomy: One of the key advantages of trigger warnings is the empowerment they provide to individuals. By offering a heads-up about potentially distressing content, they allow people to make informed decisions about what they consume. This element of choice is crucial, especially for those who have experienced trauma, as it gives them a sense of control over their mental and emotional well-being.
  2. Trauma Sensitivity: Trigger warnings promote trauma sensitivity, recognizing the real and lasting impact that traumatic events can have on an individual's mental health. By acknowledging these sensitivities, society can take a step towards destigmatizing mental health issues and fostering a more compassionate and understanding environment.
  3. Reduced Re-Traumatization: For individuals with a history of trauma, encountering unexpected and distressing content can lead to re-traumatization. Trigger warnings can help mitigate this risk by allowing individuals to prepare themselves mentally or opt out if necessary, reducing the chances of experiencing emotional distress.
  4. Enhanced Learning: In educational settings, trigger warnings can enhance the learning experience. By signaling that potentially distressing content will be discussed, educators create a space where students can engage with challenging topics while feeling supported and safe. This can foster deeper understanding and critical thinking.

Possible Dangers of Trigger Warnings

Not everything is positive news. Some psychologists have painted a not-so-rosy picture of these ubiquitous alerts. Research looking into the effectiveness and implications of trigger warnings found several intriguing results in a recently published meta-analysis.

1. Emotional Responses: Trigger warnings had no substantial effect on affective responses to negative material. While some studies suggested that warnings increased negative emotional reactions, others concluded they had a trivial impact. Only one study in this meta-analysis suggested that warnings might reduce emotional reactions.

2. Avoidance Behavior: The impact of warnings on avoidance behavior was mixed. Some studies found negligible effects on avoidance, while others reported small increases in avoidance or even increased engagement with the warned material in specific circumstances.

3. Anticipatory Affect: Trigger warnings consistently increased anticipatory anxiety before exposure to the content. This suggests that individuals who receive warnings are likely to experience heightened anxiety in anticipation of distressing material.

4. Comprehension: Trigger warnings did not appear to affect comprehension of educational material. Studies found no substantial impairments or enhancements in participants' understanding of content accompanied by warnings.

The study's findings highlight the complexity of trigger warnings' effects, with no clear consensus emerging from the existing research. While they may increase anticipatory anxiety, their impact on emotional responses and avoidance behavior varies across studies.

One crucial aspect of this research is its potential to inform ongoing debates about the role of trigger warnings in education and media. Proponents argue that these warnings provide essential accommodations for individuals with trauma histories, allowing them to make informed choices about their exposure to distressing content. Critics, on the other hand, raise concerns about the potential for trigger warnings to foster avoidance behavior and hinder resilience.

It's important to note that the effectiveness of trigger warnings may depend on various factors, including the wording and context of the warning, as well as the individual's prior experiences and sensitivities. Additionally, this meta-analysis highlights the need for more rigorous and standardized research in this area to draw more definitive conclusions.


Trigger warnings have become a prominent aspect of our information-saturated world, sparking both support and controversy. When used thoughtfully and responsibly, trigger warnings can provide valuable protection and empowerment to individuals who have experienced trauma. However, it is essential to strike a balance that acknowledges their benefits while guarding against potential drawbacks, such as an overly sensitive culture or censorship concerns.


Bridgland, V. M. E., Jones, P. J., & Bellet, B. W. (2023). A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes. Clinical Psychological Science, 0(0).

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