Understanding the Psychological Impact of Trigger Warnings

Understanding the Psychological Impact of Trigger Warnings


Key points :

  • Triggers elicit emotional responses, recalling past traumas.
  • They impact mental health conditions, prompting symptoms and relapses.
  • Coping strategies for Trigger Warnings include seeking support and practising mindfulness.

In modern society, trigger warnings are prevalent. However, they often evoke a range of emotions. Initially, they might provide a sense of relief or comfort, but they can also lead to frustration and anger as individuals grapple with their implications. Some people see triggers as unnecessary or small discomforts. However, it’s important to understand the big difference between feeling a bit uneasy and having past traumas come back.

These overall trigger warnings are nothing but some traumatic past experiences of an individual. However, there is a well-known difference between being uncomfortable and having trigger warnings. Feeling triggered isn’t just about something rubbing you the wrong way but it is where someone having a history of some traumatic events being reminded of the circumstance over again. Mezulis once noted that even people without any particular trauma can be triggered by something that elicits a strong emotional reaction.

What is trauma?

One of the underlying characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the occurrence of flashbacks. Trauma, whether stemming from abuse, violence, or other distressing events in the past, can have long-lasting effects on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. When we find ourselves in a traumatic circumstance, the brain’s fight and flight mode is activated by the limbic system. This memory system could not distinguish between the past occurrence of this traumatic event, present or future. The sole focus becomes that we are in immediate danger. It’s as if we are transported back to that horrific moment, and once again confronted by the same threat response. For many trauma survivors, the world can feel completely unpredictable and unsafe. Trigger warnings confront empathy and respect for individuals’ circle, reinforcing their sense of agency over their own traumatic experiences.

Everything about the trigger warnings 

The term “trigger” emerged in the late 1990s through discussions among women in internet chat rooms focused on sexual assault. Over time, it gained traction in colleges and among other individuals discussing similar topics. Over time likewise the concept of trigger warnings spread via various media means. 

Furthermore, people came to the realisation that trigger warnings are not just about censorship but rather about inclusivity and accessibility. It is essential to cast trigger warnings as a tool in a broader framework of trauma-informed care. In addition to issuing warnings, it’s crucial for all sectors—especially healthcare professionals—to foster an environment of safety, trustworthiness, and sensitivity to individuals’ needs.

Mental Health Conditions Affected by Triggers 

After all trigger warnings are commonly used to refer to the experiences of people with PTSD, the term trigger can also be used in the context of other mental health conditions including substance use disorder, eating disorders and anxiety. An example is the case of an individual with substance use disorder. They may struggle to resist their inner urges triggered by the smell of alcohol and bars, experiencing intense cravings and thoughts of drinking merely from the scent.

Under such cases, a trigger is anything that prompts an increase in or return of symptoms. The experience here causes a return of cravings and relapses. Triggers vary widely from person to person and trigger warnings could be internal as well as external. Internal trigger comes from within the person which can be any withholding memory, a physical sensation or an emotion. Certain common internal triggers could be anger, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, pain and sadness.

When comparing it to mental health, internal triggers are cognitive and emotional cues that lead to a relapse of symptoms and unwanted emotions. External triggers are completely different as they arise from the person’s environment. It can be any specific person, place or a specific situation. What may appear as ordinary situations or minor inconveniences to some individuals can trigger traumatic experiences for others. These triggers could be anything from a seemingly insignificant argument with a friend to certain sounds, smells, or even random occurrences.

How Triggers are formed?

Many researchers have been working on this specific thing yet things aren’t as clear as they should be regarding the trigger formations. Some believe that the brain profusely stores memories from past experiences and events differently from memories of any good and positive as well as non-trauma event. When triggered, the brain can interpret past traumatic events as if they were happening in the present moment. This can lead to the body experiencing a similar fight-or-flight response or exhibiting the same symptoms as it did during the original traumatic experience.

A trigger can evoke a powerful emotional response and bring back memories of the entire scenario. Triggers often have strong sensory connections or are linked to deeply ingrained habits. This phenomenon is sometimes described as “traumatic coupling,” where a trigger becomes connected to a traumatic experience, causing individuals to relive it and associate themselves with the symptoms of that experience.

How to cope with the Trigger Warnings?

In many circumstances, one can avoid trigger warnings but if avoidance hinders your ability to perform precisely then one should seek help. It could be Calling your close ones, deep breathing, exercising, journaling and mindfulness meditation. Researchers have recommended using mindful grounding to increase tolerance and keep the mind focused on the present. Empower yourself by proactively preparing to cope with triggers. Learn to recognize when you’re being triggered and develop strategies to calm yourself down. Individual coping skills play a crucial role in this process, enabling you to navigate challenging situations with greater resilience and self-awareness.

Thus everything sums up, trigger warnings are rewrapped in psychology’s understanding of trauma and its effects on individuals’ mental health. Far from being mere political correctness, these should play a vital role in the building up of empathy, respect and inclusivity within the community. By accommodating and acknowledging the diverse emotional experiences of an individual we can create a more compassionate and supportive environment for everyone.

References +
  • Reynolds, E. (2023, November 21). Do trigger warnings work as intended? BPS. https://www.bps.org.uk/research-digest/do-trigger-warnings-work-intended#
  • The psychology of trigger warnings. (n.d.). https://www.behaviouralbydesign.com/post/the-psychology-of-trigger-warnings
  • Bridgland, V. M. E., Jones, P. J., & Bellet, B. W. (2023). A Meta-Analysis of the efficacy of trigger warnings, content warnings, and content notes. Clinical Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/21677026231186625

Leave feedback about this

  • Rating