Trigger warnings may actually increase people’s anxiety, a new study found.
Trigger warnings are all over the internet, warning readers that the content they’re about to encounter mentions topics they may find distressing: eating disorders, suicide, self-harm, sexual abuse and so on. An italicized disclaimer at the top of an article about an actor’s struggle with bulimia might read: This article contains descriptions of eating disorders that may be triggering for some individuals.
Scrolling online can be an emotional minefield, and on the surface, trigger warnings seem like a considerate heads up to people living with mental health issues. But a new study out of Flinders University in Australia suggests these types of warnings may not be as helpful as you’d assume.
The research, a meta-analysis of previous studies that looked at the usefulness of trigger and content warnings, found that such disclaimers may actually increase people’s anxiety and lead to a “pandora effect” where the curiosity to proceed is only made stronger.
“We found that the main claims about the potential benefits of trigger warnings— that they either help people to mentally prepare to cope with negative material, or are used to completely avoid negative material — are unfounded,” said Victoria Bridgland, a post-doctoral researcher at Flinders and the lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Trigger warnings can lead to anticipatory anxiety, the heightened feeling of oncoming dread, doom, or worry about something occurring in the future.Ashley McGirt, trauma therapist
The emerging body of research shows that, compared to content without trigger warnings, the disclaimers do not lead to any form of emotional or mental preparation, Bridgland told HuffPost.
“Instead, the most consistent effect of trigger warnings seems to be that when we see them, they make us feel anxious in anticipation of what is to come,” she said. “This anxiety likely stems from a fear of the unknown, potentially emotionally harmful thing that the warning tells us is looming in the upcoming future.”
Over the last decade or so, the need for trigger warnings has been widely debated. Advocates claim they’re a boon to mental health and well-being online ― a small concession to make to people living with trauma. Critics argue that they’re leading to a “coddled snowflake generation,” Bridgland said.
While triggers and trigger warnings may be most associated with millennials and Gen Z, the psychological concept of “triggers” goes back to the early 1900s, when psychologists were working to classify “war neurosis,” or the trauma of serving in the military. That research gave way to the discovery of post-traumatic stress disorder and an understanding of what “triggers” those disconcerting memories of war for veterans.
For her study, Bridgland wanted to put aside the debate over trigger warnings and neutrally look at their efficacy for readers with trauma.
“Like all good scientists, I was itching to find out if any of the claims made by each side of the debate could hold water once taken out of a political context and tested in an experimental framework,” she said. “Namely, what happens when someone sees a warning (e.g., how do they feel?) and does this alter the way they then react to subsequent material?”
Trigger warnings may lead to a “pandora effect” where a person's curiosity to proceed is actually intensified.
Ashley McGirt, a trauma therapist in Seattle who is not affiliated with the study, told HuffPost she’s not surprised by the findings.
“Trigger warnings can lead to anticipatory anxiety, the heightened feeling of oncoming dread, doom, or worry about something occurring in the future,” she said.
With trigger warnings, we’re often contending with two separate stimuli, explained Samantha DeCaro, a psychologist and the director of clinical outreach and education at the Renfrew Center, a national eating disorder treatment center.
“We respond emotionally to the distressing content, but also to the trigger warning itself,” said DeCaro, who was also not involved in the study.
Neither McGirt nor DeCaro thinks trigger warnings should be done away with entirely. If a disclaimer can help even just a few people avoid unwanted content, McGirt thinks they’re worthwhile.
“I personally have valued warnings especially now during the Israel-Hamas war, as images of bodies slain and dismembered circulate social media,” she said. “I appreciate that it is blocked, as opposed to just exposing me to the content.”
Trigger warnings give people an opportunity to consent to the exposures that pop up unexpectedly in their environment, DeCaro said, which can be a good thing.
In the short term, avoiding a subject you find personally troubling can provide a temporary, reinforcing sense of relief, DeCaro told HuffPost.
“In the long run, though, avoiding emotional experiences can actually strengthen them,” she said. “That’s the paradox of avoidance.”
“In the long run... avoiding emotional experiences can actually strengthen them. That’s the paradox of avoidance," says psychologist Samantha DeCaro.
To actually mitigate the impact of triggers, DeCaro encourages slow, “thoughtfully planned” exposure therapy, with the help of a mental health practitioner.
At its core, exposure therapy is a technique that focuses on gradually changing your response to the object or situation that you fear through gradual exposure to it.
Bridgland, the author of the Flinders study, agrees that such exposure work could make trigger warnings more effective.
“For trigger warnings to work, people would need some kind of pre-training to give them emotion regulation strategies that they could use if they come across a trigger warning,” she said.
It’s about learning how to face your traumas instead of avoiding them.
“For example, maybe you learn how to watch something in a neutral way rather than in an emotional way,” Bridgland explained. “This might not be something that can be achieved by a trigger warning message alone.”
What to do if you find triggering warnings distressing in the moment
Both therapists offered some advice if you find yourself upset by a trigger warning, or by something you’ve read or viewed.
Practice emotional acceptance.
When you start to feel a distressing emotion, observe the entire experience non-judgmentally. Observe your thoughts, your physical sensations, your urges and your behaviors, DeCaro said.
“The judgmental stories we tell ourselves, and the predictions we try to make about our emotional experiences, can potentially heighten or prolong our distress,” she said. “Practice observing emotions with self-compassion and self-validation.”
“Regular mindfulness practice can help you become more resilient to triggers over time,” said Ashley McGirt, a trauma therapist in Seattle.
Pause and make time for mindfulness.
Mindfulness techniques and deep breathing exercises can be powerful tools to manage triggers, McGirt said. When you notice you’re triggered ― or you read a trigger warning and find the warning alone distressing ― take a few moments to focus on how your body is feeling. Pay attention to your breath, which may be more rapid than normal.
“Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale through your mouth,” McGirt said. “This can help regulate your nervous system and calm the fight-or-flight response that triggers can activate.”
In the long term, practicingmindfulness can help you observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment, allowing you to detach from any trigger’s intensity.
Allow emotions to unfold.
We can’t always avoid our triggers, and constantly dodgingthem limits our opportunities to overcome them. With that in mind, remind yourself that all emotions eventually rise and fall on their own, DeCaro said.
“We don’t have to do anything to make our emotions go away, because our bodies and our minds take care of them for us,” she said. “Over time, intentionally leaning into our emotional experiences can help us build tolerance to our feelings. By intentionally leaning in, we discover that we can survive our emotions at their peak and that no feeling lasts forever.”