On Arguments against Trigger Warnings

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist & Webmaster

Content warning: PTSD, invalidation (especially of trigger warnings), sexual assault, exposure therapy, flooding.

Courtesy of fluidsurveys.com

Courtesy of fluidsurveys.com

When I see articles like “Hazards Ahead: The Problem With Trigger Warnings, According to the Research” (link is below) in my Facebook newsfeed, I get really pissed off. If you’ve seen my other articles or heard me talk (ever), you’ll know how I feel about people invalidating mental health and trigger warnings. This article’s author, Richard J. McNally, takes some common, faulty views and “backs them up” with “research.” He begins the article with an explanation of the topic in general, then he discusses five studies on PTSD, using information gathered in said studies to make a case that trigger warnings do more harm than good. As a journalist, I also found this article problematic in approach and integrity, so I will now combine both standpoints and share with you the reasons I feel that it is dangerous and inappropriate.

My problem with the article starts in the second paragraph at, “warn readers away from potentially disturbing content.” First, this is not what trigger warnings do. They are not “warning” readers to not read something, they are giving readers information so that they can make an informed decision about something that could devastatingly affect their mental health. Individual responses to triggers vary greatly, but often the physiological reactions are similar to other anxiety disorders-- hypervigilance, flashbacks, dissociation, etc. Basically, the trigger signals that there is danger and a person goes into “fight or flight” mode.

McNally states that the trigger warning “originated in the feminist blogosphere in part to emphasize the frequency of sexual assault in America and the trauma that can come with it.” Okay. That might be a fact, but he uses it in a context of dismissal, implying, “Ugh, those political correctness fanatic feminists are at it again!” I think that is editorializing and not relevant in an article that is about how studies show that trigger warnings might be overblown (the studies that supposedly “show” this are problematic themselves, by the way. More on this later).

Using “discomfort” to trivialize the response a person can have to a trigger, McNally continues with, “But as the following studies show, these warnings may be counterproductive.” Now, I’m no expert, but in three years of statistics and analysis of articles relating to scientific study, I would be inclined to think that he is jumping to conclusions. Not just jumping to them, but hopping on a spaceship and flying 25 thousand mph to them, as we will see when I get to these studies. A few small studies may indicate a pattern in the individuals studied and may be applied to the population of people with the same attributes, but unless you study a very large number of this population, you are not very likely to get much more than a vague idea about your topic. Not enough to say that trigger warnings are definitively “counterproductive.” Plus, giving someone a heads-up so they can be mentally ready for something that can hurt them does not halt recovery. It prevents derailment of recovery, and allows a person agency in their own recovery. A grand total of zero of these studies actually studied trigger warnings. McNally uses studies about PTSD to make statements about trigger warnings, when trigger warnings are about more than PTSD. He’s using these studies as “scientific” information to back up a predetermined, faulty view on trigger warnings that I’ve found a lot of the public shares.

McNally says that trigger warnings “underestimate the resilience of most trauma survivors.” No, they don’t. Unless they say, “Hey, weakling. You’re too weak to handle the content in this material, so you should just not look at it.” I see trigger warnings as informed consent— a way to help someone know what they’re getting into. I have never read a trigger warning that I felt was insulting. I can’t speak for everyone, of course. But isn’t McNally saying, in effect, that being triggered means you aren’t resilient? If he’s talking about a kind of inherent psychological resistance, he needs to specify that. Otherwise, his implication is just plain wrong.

McNally uses statistics in a sneaky way to try to convince readers of the dangers of trigger warnings. By giving readers numbers, he’s waving “science” in their faces, hoping they won’t look past the percentages to see the actual meaning behind them. He tells us, “...only 9.2 percent of the subjects [who experienced trauma, which was 89.6 percent of them] developed PTSD.” Only 9.2 percent? Only?!? That’s about 26,385,659 people in the United States, based on those percentages. Does it really matter that it isn’t the majority? He’s basically saying, “Well, it’s not even 10 percent, so trigger warnings are not worth the inconvenience of a minute of my precious time.” Yeah, equality, respect, and peace of mind are overrated. Sure.

Looking beyond McNally’s numbers, we can see that another study that he uses to support his claim has a sample size of 95 women. I’d have failed statistics if I thought that 95 was a big enough sample to make statements about the population, which is roughly 1,684,210 times greater.  That’s like having a bag of 1.5 million jelly beans and assuming they’re all strawberry-flavored when you pull one strawberry bean— ONE—out of the bag. And it gets better. “The data indicate that about half of rape survivors recover naturally from PTSD within three months of the assault.” Okay, but does that mean that we’re allowed to bombard these people with unlabeled triggers because ~maybe~ their traumatic experience was a long time ago? Again, as long as we aren’t mesmerized by “half of survivors recover,” we can see that he is unacceptably dismissing the other half and those whose trauma happened fewer than three months ago.
Note that PTSD rates are not going to be 100% accurate because they are based on whether people can get a diagnosis or not, and the people who experience the most trauma due to intersectional violence are also less likely (due to lack of economic means, lack of access to therapy, internalized stigma against therapy, etc.) to seek the professional help which would lead to a diagnosis. And not everyone who would benefit from trigger warnings has PTSD.

McNally also made me really mad by citing exposure therapy. I’ve seen this “argument” employed frequently against trigger warnings. Exposure may be the most effective treatment statistically, but you do not have a right to force exposure on someone. Exposure therapy is about starting with minor associations and proving them safe and slowly working up to bigger obstacles. For example, if you have a paralyzing phobia of heights, you may work from looking outside a second-story window, to images from higher up, to eventually standing at the top of a skyscraper and looking down. You don’t start their therapy on the observation deck of the Sears Tower (glass floors and 1,450 ft up). When you force exposure in that kind of intensity, it’s called “flooding” and it is actually extremely dangerous and can worsen the condition. Similarly, some people overcome allergies over time, but if someone were to suddenly jump out of a tree and rub me with a cat, I’d probably not be able to breathe and my health would be in danger. Treat psychological phenomena the same way.

The language used in McNally’s argument also doesn’t prove his point that trigger warnings are detrimental to recovery. “Prolonged exposure therapy” and “working with their therapists” indicate that long-term therapy is a good thing. So… does that mean triggers are a good thing? Maybe, if they involve knowing beforehand and going into therapy for a long time first. As I said earlier, triggers put people at the risk of flooding, which destroys recovery progress and often makes the case worse. I see absolutely no link between working with a trained professional over a long period of time and reading a detailed account of rape in a reading you thought was safe.

Before I conclude this article, I would like to explain why I believe trigger warnings are an intersectional social justice issue, and how it is in this context that I find Richard J. McNally’s article irresponsible. You might notice that the article I’ve been critiquing here doesn’t mention the fact that people with gender identities other than cis female experience PTSD and sexual assault. Marginalized gender identities are statistically exposed to violence on a greater scale, and are more likely to be invalidated, bullied and oppressed by institutions of power. The likelihood of experiencing violence increases at the intersections of marginalized identities. For example, a trans person of color who is also disabled and has already experienced trauma is far more likely to experience it again, while a cis white male is in a place of privilege and therefore is less likely to experience trauma. (Note that this is not to say that he isn’t subject to violent or traumatic events. Something like a natural disaster does not discriminate, though the research in the McNally article speaks mostly about sexual assault, which does discriminate.) This briefly explains some of the differences in traumatic experiences that lead to uneven rates of PTSD.

Not seeking help also has implications for recovery. The studies in the McNally article demonstrated that exposure therapy with a professional over a period of time is the most effective recovery method. It is also a very expensive recovery method. This leads to incomplete, delayed, or nonexistent recovery in those who can’t afford or are told they don’t need therapy. So, in effect, those who oppose trigger warnings are also saying that they don’t care that trigger warnings prevent harm to marginalized people.

To drive my point home, I want to apply arguments against trigger warnings to a situation to show how ridiculous they sound. Say someone throws a brick at your head out of nowhere (in my analogy, hurling a trigger at you with no warning). How would this person justify not warning you? “The real world doesn’t warn you about flying bricks!” “A brick will fly at you sooner or later,” “Don’t be so sensitive!” “Not throwing bricks at people limits my freedom of expression,” “Just don’t go outside if you don’t want to experience the brick!” According to McNally, you’d only be in “discomfort” after a brick hits you. I’ll let you judge this for yourself.

For further reading, I recommend this article:

The article I critique: