In defense of the trigger warning

Sarah Lee

Please note: this column contains brief mentions of sexual abuse/assault, abuse and gun violence.
Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

In recent years, the concept of the trigger warning has made waves throughout the academic world. The idea behind trigger warnings is that teachers and professors should disclose content that could cause psychological harm to students in order to prevent worsening symptoms of certain mental illnesses. Those against implementing these warnings, however, suggest they promote academic censorship, and that, if everything goes perfectly wrong, we could end up in a society where all academic texts with potentially “triggering” content would be banned from the classroom.
The thing is, the benefits of having trigger warnings far outweigh any potential risks that come with them. For starters, being “triggered” is not being overly-sensitive to social justice issues, contrary to what Internet memes may imply. Rather, when one is triggered, it can result in a wide range of symptoms, including panic attacks, flashbacks to a traumatic incident or relapses into addiction, according to, a resource website for male survivors of sexual abuse.

It takes an average of 30 minutes to calm down from a panic attack, according to, a self-help website for people struggling with anxiety. By contrast, a trigger warning should take no longer than a minute to type or say out loud. So, from a utilitarian perspective, trigger warnings are beneficial because of the great deal of pain they prevent for just less than a minute’s inconvenience.

There are many conditions that can cause one to be triggered, but the one I would like to address is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The causes of PTSD can vary, but a few common ones listed by the National Health Service are abuse, sexual assault (especially at a young age) or witnessing extreme violence—things that no one should have to go through.

Most of us think we should help people who have had to face these tragedies. So, why is it that, when given a simple way to do so, we turn their symptoms into a “triggered” joke? Why do we accuse survivors with plotting to increase censorship? Why do we, when offered a means by which to help these people recover, deny them that option, and then criticize them for not recovering quickly enough?

Trauma survivors are not trying to censor their teachers and professors. They aren’t trying to find excuses to cut class. All they’re asking for is a heads-up, a brief mention of, “Oh, by the way, there’s a rape scene in this chapter,” so they can mentally prepare for it when it comes, rather than have it come out of nowhere—with dire consequences.

I know that not every person has the same triggers. I know some people can be triggered by something like the weather outside the day they witnessed a mass shooting. I’m not saying we have to include trigger warnings for rain. But if a book for English explicitly deals with themes like partner abuse, shouldn’t we give our community members who have had experiences that we cannot possibly begin to imagine some degree of fair warning?

We talk all the time about the steps we should take as a school to be more sensitive to people different from ourselves. So why do we refuse to do something so simple with so important a benefit?

Or rather, why do we know of and understand the benefit and still choose to turn the other way?