How Trigger Warnings Can Survive in Academia

My professor assigned a film that contained rape scenes for a homework assignment and I don’t hate him for it. But maybe I have a right to. At the time, he simply told us we should try watching with a friend in case the “sensitive content” was upsetting. Some may argue that this professor should have done more. Others will argue that he should have done less.

Harvard psychologists recently released a study which found:

Now, before we burn these researchers at the stake for “invalidating someone’s experience,” we should acknowledge that there is some validity in these findings. Yes, I, a trauma survivor, think maybe trigger warnings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Psychology Today defined a trigger as a non-harmful stimulus that provokes an extreme and maladaptive negative response in those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Triggers do cause emotional harm, but the term “non-harmful” means the smell, sound, or stimulus itself is not doing the hurting; it is reminding survivors of what caused them pain. Triggers are so unique that we cannot know what someone’s triggers are even if we know that person well. The person who suffers from PTSD themselves may not even know them all. We learn as we go.

Try to imagine a college student whose father abused her as a child and put out his cigarettes on the sensitive skin on the inside of her wrists. During the film, the scene zooms in to a character stubbing out a cigarette on an ashtray. The camera stalls as the embers fizzle out and the image and sound remind the student of the pain she endured. There is no way for the professor to have known that a cigarette scene would be triggering for that student. There is no way for the student to have known that such a scene would come up or that it could elicit such a violent emotional response. No movie synopsis would have described such a small detail in the plot of the film. With that said, there are common subjects that we know are likely to be triggering: sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide. So professors do have a responsibility to gives a warning for such content.

In the Psychology Today article that discusses the Harvard study and past research, I agree that:

People with PSTD should consistently work on coping techniques to manage their emotions when these stimuli inevitably arrive. Granted, the ability to care for oneself in the aftermath of trauma often comes from socio-economic privilege and having an emotional support network.

Being the nerdy Psych major that I am, I couldn’t resist running a short case study on myself. The Harvard study was only conducted with the general public instead of traumatized individuals. So I wanted to see if my results as a survivor of sexual violence would match up. The authors of the study presume that if they replicate the study with a more representative sample, trigger warnings would still be counterproductive to people with PTSD because they help to avoid trauma. Whereas, prolonged exposure therapy has been proven to alleviate PTSD symptoms.

My professor eventually gave the option for students to simply not watch the film that could be upsetting. Post sexual assault, I’ve still watched Law and Order: Special Victims Unit religiously. But for my mini-study, I chose the alternate option. And I was the only one. I spent the first 45 minutes of our 70-minute class listening to all of my classmates discuss a film of which I had no knowledge. After they finished, I read a short summary of my film choice without lifting my eyes from the page, the blood beating in my ears from embarrassment.

By offering a different option for “those who may be disturbed,” we risk singling those students out, which can then be, well…disturbing. If the professor allowed me to skip the first 45 minutes of class to avoid sitting in silence, my late arrival might have still felt like announcing: “Hey, I’m traumatized and I can’t deal.” Of course, none of my classmates would see me that way. I’m sure they didn’t think about my solo performance half as much as I did. But, as the Harvard study demonstrated, it is the survivor’s own perception of their resilience that is impacted by these accommodations.

Thankfully, there are solutions in between no disclosure with full exposure to triggering content and removing the student from the situation entirely. One student in my class was kind enough to send out a detailed breakdown of the time frames in which there were upsetting scenes. For example, she wrote “There is a rape from 1:00:00 to 1:05:00. There is self-harm from 1:40:00 to 1:48:00.” This may not completely shield students from having to think about difficult past experiences they’ve had, but it can prevent them from being exposed to it in graphic visual detail.

“This is not a foolproof method for all forms of academic content,” one might say. “What about written texts? Do we tell students which paragraphs to skip over? Which pages, or chapters? What about live lectures? Should we have students miss out on these informative experiences entirely?” Trigger warnings are not meant to completely remove trauma survivors from confronting all content related to their pain. They serve as a heads up of what is to come so that those who would be affected can choose when they want to engage with the material and prepare how they will recenter themselves afterward. For those who have survived a traumatic event that was most likely out of their control, trigger warnings give students agency.

Writer and UX Designer. Neurodivergent. Intersectional Feminist. Crafting personal narratives that make strangers feel less alone. Psych, Gender Equity, Race.