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10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings

There's a difference between being triggered and being uncomfortable.

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With college now in session, the topic of trigger warnings in the classroom is back in the news.

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In a recently released letter to incoming freshmen, the University of Chicago's dean of students, John Ellison, wrote that students should not expect trigger warnings at the school.

"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,'" Ellison wrote. "We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

First, let's talk about what trigger warnings actually are.

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While there is no official definition of a trigger warning, psychologists broadly define it as a heads-up about content that could be triggering for someone with a history of trauma. What that looks like could vary, and we'll get to that in a bit.

Along those lines, a trigger would be something that elicits a symptomatic response in someone with a history of trauma — maybe flashbacks or a panic attack.

For someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a trigger warning could help them prepare for what's to come, giving them an opportunity to draw on strategies or tools to deal with that.

Though the University of Chicago letter is referring to concerns about academic freedom, it sparked a debate about the function and efficacy of trigger warnings in the classroom, especially as they relate to mental health and trauma.

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BuzzFeed Health spoke with the following psychologists about what they wish people knew about trigger warnings from a mental health perspective:

* Ryan Howes, PhD, California-based clinical psychologist

* Ruth Goldston, PhD, New Jersey-based psychologist

* Nance Roy, EdD, clinical director at the Jed Foundation and assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry

* Andrea Bonior, PhD, clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University

* Eileen Zurbriggen, PhD, psychologist and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz

* Elana Newman, PhD, research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and professor at the University of Tulsa

Here's what they had to say:

1. There’s a difference between being triggered and being uncomfortable.

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Triggering material isn't just something that rubs you the wrong way. "Being [made] uncomfortable by topics or values or things that upset you is very different than having a symptomatic mental health response," says Newman.

For someone with a history of trauma (like sexual assault, an attack, war, etc.) or someone with PTSD, "they may feel a kind of sensitivity or hyper-vigilance around words or images that could bring that trauma to mind," says Howes.

As a result, they may go into fight-or-flight mode when exposed to words or imagery that remind them of the trauma, as if they're experiencing it all over again.

2. What a trigger warning actually looks like can vary — but they're usually not blanket statements from the university.

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It might be a note on a syllabus that the reading will have graphic depictions of violence. It might be a heads-up at the beginning of a lecture that there will be a discussion on campus rape statistics. It could also be a private chat with a professor to ask if there will be any course material that deals with incest.

Because everyone is going to have different triggers based on their experiences — what's triggering for someone who was sexually assaulted would be different than what’s triggering for someone who has been to war, for example — they're often dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

3. Trigger warnings can also be for content related to suicide, self-harm, addiction, and eating disorders.

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When someone has a history of mental illness, being unexpectedly exposed to imagery or content that deals with that history can be harmful — not just uncomfortable.

"Let's say there’s somebody who is recovering from bulimia and hasn’t purged in some time," says Bonior. "And they’re watching a random video in class that out of nowhere makes light of a bunch of women vomiting after they’ve eaten lunch or something like that. Because it caught them off guard, they might very well start thinking down those lines again."

The same could be said for someone recovering from addiction, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. "When someone is recovering from a suicide attempt or suicidal urges, that can be very, very sensitizing to read portrayals of somebody who is suicidal," explains Bonior. "It can start them down the path of more suicidal ideation if that person is in recovery."

4. However, they're not meant to obstruct free speech or dictate what a professor is and isn't allowed to teach.

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This doesn't mean that colleges need to limit any discussion of potentially triggering material like rape, murder, war, eating disorders, or alcohol.

"I think what a lot of people hear is that we’re never going to teach a course about X, and that it’s interfering with academic freedom," says Goldston. "And I just don't think it's doing that."

A trigger warning should function as exactly that: a warning to students who may need time to prepare (mentally, physically, or otherwise) so that they can ideally engage with the material in a controlled setting, instead of being blindsided in a crowded lecture hall.

5. The goal of trigger warnings is not to avoid all triggers, but avoidance may be necessary based on where you are in recovering from your trauma.

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All the experts BuzzFeed Health spoke to agreed that avoiding triggers forever isn’t a solution; in the long run, the goal is to get to a place where you’re equipped to deal with triggers when you run into them. But there is a critical period of healing where avoiding triggers may be necessary, so long as it’s part of a larger treatment plan.

Think of it this way: Someone who is in the process of becoming sober is probably better off staying out of bars. The same goes for triggering material when you’re in recovery, says Bonior. “While there’s an active wound you’re working on healing, it makes sense not to aggravate it,” she says. “You can use trigger warnings to avoid making the wound deeper in the interim. It’s a scab healing.”

6. Ideally, trigger warnings would be a part of a larger treatment plan with a professional.

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How you interact with a trigger warning will go hand in hand with where you are in recovering from your trauma, which is why treatment can't be left out of the conversation. "If you’re going to claim you can’t be exposed to [something], what are you doing actually and actively to work on that right now?" asks Bonior.

Seeking out treatment can help you process the trauma and develop strategies to help you get through the day without being triggered. According to Goldston, that might include meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, deep breathing techniques, or grounding exercises (reminding yourself that you are in this present moment and place by focusing on things you can see, touch, hear, etc.). It could also mean sitting near the door so you can step out if things get to be too much.

So, based on where you are in treatment, getting a trigger warning might mean practicing grounding exercises before class, or it might mean saying to your professor, “This might be hard for me to witness in class. Can we figure out another way for me to get the material?”

7. If you need an accommodation based on a mental illness or disability, there are resources available to you — regardless of your university's stance on trigger warnings.

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"If you suffer from PTSD in particular, it is a disability," says Newman. And if that's something you're in treatment for and that has been documented by a professional, then your professor is required to make accommodations, which may include trigger warnings.

Most colleges have accessibility offices, says Roy, which encompass both mental health and physical impairments. So if you've experienced a trauma or have a mental health condition where you know certain triggers may cause a symptomatic response, that's something you should communicate through those channels.

"People don't think twice about submitting documentation about a learning disability," says Roy. "Why should this be any different?"

8. Trigger warnings don't need to be applied globally to be effective — both students and professors can play a role in utilizing them.

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To say it’s all on the school or all on the student is too extreme, according to Howes. Instead, educators should consider it a responsible choice to include warnings before sensitive materials, and students should take responsibility for talking to professors about what warnings would benefit them and preparing for what to do when they come up. That way, it’s more of a collaboration between students and educators, says Bonior.

In fact, a campus-wide requirement for trigger warnings could actually be selling everyone short, says Roy.

“If we’re suggesting that every class and every faculty member needs to start every class with a warning globally to all students … it conveys a message that all students are incredibly fragile and have no capacity for resilience, and that’s just simply not true.”

9. Some believe that even the act of asking for a trigger warning can be an empowering step in someone's recovery.

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Having a sense of control over a situation is important, especially for those whose traumatic experience took control away from them, Zurbriggen says. According to Goldston, telling that story can be an important step in healing.

Armed with a heads-up, those students can put their safeguards in place and come to class prepared to participate, says Zurbriggen, instead of being forced to shut down or pull back from discussion due to an unexpected trigger.

10. Asking for a trigger warning isn’t asking for a world without triggers.

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When people hear “trigger warning,” they often assume the students requesting them are asking to be excused from facing the world. And while it's certainly possible that this accommodation — like any other — can be abused, there are also very real situations in which a trigger warning can be conducive to someone's treatment and education.

“I feel like these debates are painting a picture of students that are not the students I see,” says Zurbriggen.

“I don’t see students with a sense of entitlement who are demanding that the world must be a safe, cushiony place for them. They’re powerful individuals not seeking to be coddled or protected. They are just trying to find ways to navigate what can potentially be a minefield for them.”

Casey Gueren is a senior health editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Casey Gueren at casey.gueren@buzzfeed.com.

Anna Borges is a health writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Anna Borges at anna.borges@buzzfeed.com.

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