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June 16, 2014

Why Are Colleges Ignoring the Science on Trigger Warnings?

Could it be that confronting triggers (rather than avoiding them) is the best way to cope with trauma?

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder. According to a rigorous analysis by the Institute of Medicine, exposure therapy is the most efficacious treatment for PTSD, especially in civilians who have suffered trauma such as sexual assault. For example, prolonged exposure therapy, the cognitive behavioral treatment pioneered by clinical psychologists Edna B. Foa and Barbara O. Rothbaum, entails having clients close their eyes and recount their trauma in the first-person present tense. After repeated imaginal relivings, most clients experience significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, as traumatic memories lose their capacity to cause emotional distress. Working with their therapists, clients devise a hierarchy of progressively more challenging trigger situations that they may confront in everyday life. By practicing confronting these triggers, clients learn that fear subsides, enabling them to reclaim their lives and conquer PTSD.

It would be just awful if it turned out that all these trigger warnings were actually hurting abuse victims:


Many women who have experienced sexual assault reject the label victim in favor of survivor. But although the latter term connotes empowering agency, having trauma become central to one’s identity bodes poorly for one’s mental health. The psychologists Dorthe Berntsen and David C. Rubin developed a short questionnaire called the Centrality of Event Scale (CES) that assesses how important a specific event is to one’s personal identity. The CES captures how integrated the event is in one’s autobiographical memory, the extent to which it marks a turning point in one’s life story, and the degree to which it shapes one’s expectations for the future. My Ph.D. student, Donald J. Robinaugh, and I found that among 102 women who reported histories of childhood sexual abuse, the more central their abuse was to their identity—as measured by the CES—the worse their PTSD symptoms. In particular, seeing one’s future through the lens of one’s abuse was especially associated with the severity of PTSD symptoms. These data suggest that acknowledging one’s abuse but not allowing it to dominate one’s sense of self may foster resilience against the long-term psychologically toxic effects of childhood sexual molestation.

If only there were a way to get all this Science out to the science-friendly Left. Can we get a ruling from Obama? He's been so successful at declaring other scientific debates "settled" by executive fiat.

Posted by Cassandra at June 16, 2014 08:13 AM

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Excellent points. Very often what is needed is practice confronting the dangerous or upsetting things.

Posted by: Grim at June 16, 2014 10:12 AM

When I read this a few weeks ago, I was reminded of an article I wrote about several years ago about treating combat PTSD with video games purposely designed to invoke "triggering" sights, smells, sounds unique to the vet being treated.

The idea was to desensitize the patient to those stimuli by giving him (or possibly her) another context and set of experiences to associate with the sensory input that was causing flashbacks or panic attacks, and also to teach by positive feedback that they could cope with the feelings of anxiety.

Posted by: Cass at June 16, 2014 10:21 AM

I'm coming to believe that agency--freedom, will, choice--are central to understanding most human dilemmas. Free will may be the center of Creation. Things happen to us and are done to us, which is unavoidable, but they don't destroy us unless we freeze or hide. Even resignation to suffering, when it's unavoidable, is an act of will.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 16, 2014 10:39 AM

"Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort."

That is the rationale, flawed or not. The implementation, however, has been all-encompassing. If you think fire and wood are separate and distinct substances, a chemistry teacher must warn ahead of class enrollment that the course may show otherwise lest you be upset.

Posted by: John A at June 16, 2014 12:14 PM

It's hard to think of anything more *disempowering* than teaching people that their happiness and security depend on the good will and sensitivity of their fellow men.

There's a difference between expecting ordinary decency from others (not being needlessly rude, graphic, or harsh) and this nonsense, which makes it impossible to discuss anything important as the standards for what's unacceptable are completely subjective.

A good education is *supposed* to include exposure to things that ought to disturb anyone with a functioning brain. There aren't supposed to be guarantees that no one will ever get upset, or that certain people's sensitivities should be endlessly catered to while other people's are ignored or even deliberately attacked.

As with a lot of this stuff, the whole "triggering" thing seems to be mostly a vehicle for privileging one set of experiences and feelings over another. Hardly the way to promote fairness or equality :p

Posted by: Cass at June 16, 2014 01:35 PM

"Things happen to us and are done to us, which is unavoidable..."

Too true. One of the wildfires in California started up near our place in the Sierra Nevada. There's not a darn thing to do about it, but you can help other people. It doesn't change the reality but it does give you a measure of calm.

Posted by: Allen at June 16, 2014 01:38 PM

Huh. Science sure can be cruel.

Posted by: spd rdr at June 16, 2014 10:48 PM

Science sure can be cruel.


Science should never be cold and uncaring. Instead, it should incorporate emotional intelligence and focus on how it makes people feel about the world we live in because women - in spite of being just as tough, smart, and objective as men, are also fragile, delicate flowers who must be protected from theories that upset them.

This uniquely female sensitivity doesn't make us in any way unsuited for the arduous task of scientific inquiry. Rather, it makes us uniquely qualified to decide what is or is not a "valid line of scientific inquiry".

"Valid", in this case, meaning "It doesn't give me the vapors or cause me to threaten to faint if I don't get my way."

Having trouble wrapping your mind around the seeming conflict between stating there are no significant differences between men and women and my constant demands to be treated with extra care and consideration lest I experience discomfort? Well, this is just more evidence that you are not nearly smart enough to understand the complex workings of sophisticated thinkers like me.

And President Obama, whose mental processes are so advanced that they have now left the greatest minds in progressivism in the intellectual dust.

Posted by: Nancy Hopkin's Vapors at June 17, 2014 09:00 AM

Ok, missy, you need to tack back to the left side of your brain. You've obviously spent waaayyy too much time on the right and are in danger of slipping over the edge.

"A good education is *supposed* to include exposure to things that ought to disturb anyone with a functioning brain."

When I was but a young Dark Lord in the 7th grade, my teacher (who also happened to be the principal) had us watch a movie that was rather disturbing. He did forewarn us, and he did send home notes with us to let our parents opt their kids out. None did. They all felt it was too important to "disturb" their kids than to shelter them from the realities of the movie.
Oh, the movie?
The military footage of what was found at the concentration camps when we arrived to liberate the prisoners.
And it was such a "disturbing" lesson, that when the niece I was helping raise was in the 7th grade, we sat and watched "Amistad" together, so she could also be "disturbed" by what we had been as a People. But also educated in the fact that we, as a People, had changed since then.
See what happens when you "disturb" the children?

Oh, in case anyone needs it, "Trigger Warning!"

Posted by: DL Sly at June 17, 2014 12:47 PM

"Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort."

Worse than bad design, wrong design (if that is, indeed, what the purpose of the design was; it's so wrong I suspect there was another purpose.) What a trigger warning does is remind a survivor of their trauma much more effectively than actually exposing them to their trauma, as most who see the trigger warning will be reminded of their own particular trauma and triggered, even if the event being warned about would not be triggering.

Posted by: htom at June 17, 2014 01:28 PM

You're not supposed to give the trigger warning at the end, Sly. :)

Good point, htom.

Posted by: Grim at June 17, 2014 02:01 PM

"You're not supposed to give the trigger warning at the end, Sly. :)"

But the smile is nice.

Posted by: DL Sly at June 17, 2014 03:09 PM

We must never disturb the children with lessons.

(This message contains no gluten or peanut products.)

Posted by: Texan99 at June 17, 2014 03:46 PM

What about lactose? Does it have lactose? And how about high fructose corn syrup? I hear that's really bad for you. And GMO's, which I guess is the precursor to HMO's, but what that has to do with what you eat other than without one you will need the other, I don't know.

Posted by: Evil Twin at June 17, 2014 04:07 PM

"My kitchen contains all known allergens and uses most of them at least weekly. Consume at your own risk."

Posted by: htom at June 17, 2014 11:05 PM