Illustration by Katie Ferreol.

You’re Not sensitive. Professors Should Issue Trigger Warnings.

Classrooms where students are constantly fearful of being triggered are not conducive to promoting mental health and stability or to creating a healthy learning environment

Jan 31, 2021

Trigger Warning: the article includes mentions of eating disorders as well as descriptions of panic attacks, which may be triggering to some.
A trigger is a reminder of a traumatic event or period of time, which can be internal or external. While internal triggers exist in the form of thoughts or pain, external triggers are brought about by a sound, a visual stimulus, a situation or a discussion of a certain topic. Experiencing a trigger can make a person feel like they are reliving the traumatic event. Unfortunately, this can happen at pretty much any time, including in the middle of a class. It is especially difficult when a topic is brought up unexpectedly. Such occurrences can distract students from their learning as they try to suppress a panic attack and calm themselves down. Beyond just distracting a student from class, getting triggered can, in some cases, lead to a relapse, such as with individuals recovering from eating disorders.
Faculty should be educated on common triggers and encouraged to include warnings into their teaching material to make students feel safe and welcome in class. Warning students in advance of showing them potentially disturbing materials can diminish their emotional response to upsetting content. Students should not be expected to be constantly on edge, fearing a trigger in every sentence their professor utters.
Two types of warnings currently exist for this purpose. A content warning is a verbal or written indication that a particular work contains themes or descriptions that some people may find disturbing, such as violence or blood. A trigger warning, on the other hand, is a more specific warning, issued particularly for individuals with PTSD or trauma, ahead of content that they might find triggering. Topics that are often preceded by a trigger warning include, but are not limited to, sexual assault, depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Due to the severe repercussions that triggering content can have for certain individuals, the need for trigger warnings is slowly becoming more recognized, with some universities making it a requirement. Unfortunately, these initiatives have been receiving unjustified backlash in the last few years.
Two main arguments have been brought up by those opposed to trigger warnings. One claims that making content or trigger warnings mandatory would limit freedom of speech and the academic freedom of faculty. Essentially, to many, the fight against content warnings is the fight against censorship. According to a report by the National Coalition Against Censorship, educators have concerns that mandatory warnings would have an adverse effect on class discussion and teaching. They believe that as soon as some topics are no longer permitted, an infringement on the freedom of educators takes place. Some even fear that mandating the implementation of content warnings can quickly become a political tool, a way to police what ideologies students can or cannot be exposed to in class. With views like this, a large red flag immediately comes to mind — where is contemporary education headed if it is becoming more restricted, rather than increasingly free?
What these arguments fail to consider is that trigger warnings do not actually police the content that professors include in lectures, but rather prepare students to hear about it. Censoring curricula to weed out potentially sensitive content should by all means be discouraged. However, trigger warnings and a diverse curriculum free of interference are not mutually exclusive. Even if trigger warnings were mandatory, professors would still be able to teach certain content, rather than having to remove it from their syllabi.
Another concern often voiced by those opposed to trigger warnings is that students are being treated too gently and are being artificially protected from the harshness of the world we live in. Why should educators tread on eggshells when addressing students? Unfortunately, people cannot control what content triggers them. Sometimes, regardless of willpower, a strongly emotional, initial reaction to a particular stimulus is inevitable. Furthermore, it is nobody’s place to determine what threshold of sensitivity someone else should have. Educators do not know what most of their students are going through and what they had to experience. Emotional resilience should not be a prerequisite to attend a class.
Building resilience and diminishing one’s response to a topic is also a gradual process. Expecting people with trauma to miraculously stop responding to triggers is insensitive and, to be frank, unrealistic. Warnings do not stop topics from being discussed, but rather make it easier for students to be part of the conversation. Trigger warnings don’t “make people soft”— they make the class environment bearable for individuals with traumatic experiences and certain psychological conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder.
Finally, one could argue that any content could be triggering and consequently, everything would have to be prefaced by a warning — however many warnings one issues, an idea someone finds offensive or otherwise negative will inevitably slip under the radar. Indeed, it can be extremely difficult to come up with an exhaustive list of every single theme, subject, or situation, the discussion of which would warrant the issuing of a content or trigger warning.
It is worth a try nevertheless. Just because a perfect solution seems impossible does not mean that progress is out of the question. A list of most common triggers can help narrow down which content students should and shouldn’t be alerted towards. A warning could be as simple as a statement in a class syllabus or a brief verbal remark at the beginning of a lecture. The intent behind trigger warnings is to make students feel safe and welcome in the class environment, thereby facilitating their learning and academic success. In a perfect world, educators would issue trigger warnings because they are properly informed and care about creating a safe classroom atmosphere. Given that the risks often attributed to trigger warnings are nonexistent, encouragement and awareness of such warnings will only do good. Education should be thought-provoking and it is essential to have experiences that change your mind or make you approach an issue differently. Getting triggered and experiencing a panic attack in the middle of a lecture does neither. In order to be excellent, education does not have to and, indeed, should not be harmful.
Morgane Motlik is Deputy Copy Chief. Email her at
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