It’s time to find out what the real deal is with Trigger Warnings.

You’ve probably heard the term in the news lately, steeped in either glowing praise or dripping contempt. There’s good reason for both, as we’re about to find out, but the truth is this: Trigger Warnings are a tool. And like any tool, they can be used correctly or incorrectly.

Let’s take a look at the origins of the term. The concept arose during the treatment of Vietnam veterans in the 1980s. Psychologists identified “triggers” that caused vets to experience flashbacks related to past trauma.

As the internet began to connect like-minded people into online communities in the 1990s, feminist message boards began using “trigger warnings” for largely the same reason—to warn of potentially traumatizing content relating to sexual assault. From there, the term gained widespread usage across the internet.

Recently, students across the country began requesting, and sometimes demanding, that Trigger Warnings be added to course material, and that professors provide ample warning before any potentially triggering material is dealt with or discussed in class.

Uproar ensued.

At its heart, a Trigger Warning is simply any kind of warning designed to prevent a surprise encounter with a “trigger”—something that may dredge up past trauma in vulnerable individuals. Responses to such material in these vulnerable individuals can be anything from panic attacks to flashbacks to self-harm. This is what being triggered looks like.

Triggers can be anything that brings a person back to their unresolved trauma. This could be a scent, a sound, a raised voice, or even a color or texture. The part of the brain that processes fear—the amygdala—lights up with activity, creating sweaty palms, a racing heart, ringing ears, and scattered thoughts. It’s a bad experience. A trigger warning is used to prevent a vulnerable party from experiencing these symptoms.

In the university setting—where much of the controversy is currently emanating from—triggers can come from course materials. The call for Trigger Warnings simply means that students wish to be informed of any potentially “triggering” material before it is read or discussed.

And that’s it. Divorced from its political ties, this is all a Trigger Warning is—a heads-up.

Unfortunately, the term is consistently misunderstood by its opponents and is sometimes even misapplied by its proponents.

Let’s take a look at some of the misconceptions.

There’s no getting around it. Some people conflate being triggered with whining. This, in part, owes to the generational gap between millennials and baby boomers. Millennials are much more open to discussing issues of mental health and emotional discomfort—topics that older generations can be uncomfortable discussing, or, at times, even regard as weakness.

That discomfort is often expressed, unfortunately, as distain.

But in place of that distain, empathy should rule. Millennials, as a whole, are taking a very active role in making the world a better place—their ranks are filled with activists and idealists. Distain for the idea of Trigger Warnings often arises from a place of cynicism—“The world is a harsh place, so get used to it”.

But the thing about this statement? But we no longer have to see the world through that lens; we can make it a better and kinder place.

Another misconception that often arises is that Trigger Warnings are a form of academic censorship, that anything not politically correct will be excised from course materials.

This simply isn’t the case. A Trigger Warning is just that—a warning label. It’s not a liberal thing. It’s not a conservative thing. It’s a label. It’s the little skull on the bottle of hot sauce that tells you the stuff inside is going to incinerate your tongue. That skull does nothing to inhibit the heat, but it keeps the bottle away from those who can’t handle it.

Those are the main misconceptions. Let’s take a look at the other side—misuses of Trigger Warnings.

The prime misuse lies in broadening Trigger Warnings to accommodate not only survivors of trauma, but also those who are offended by certain political or religious ideas. When we move from the realm of mental health to the realm of offense, we’re using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail—the tool simply isn’t made for this.

When Trigger Warnings are required for material that merely challenges preconceived notions, the message sent is that this kind of challenge is undesirable, that it’s somehow wrong. This creates the expectation that something bad is about to happen, creating taboo where there should be none.

This is an abuse of the Trigger Warning tool. College campuses are places of dialogue, of the free exchange of ideas and information. A warning sign depicting this free exchange as something bad or undesirable hinders the very core of what universities are all about.

The key, here, to avoiding both misuse and misconception is to recognize the simplicity of what a Trigger Warning is, and to leave behind its political associations. Safeguarding the psychological wellbeing of students is important, and this safeguarding doesn’t mean censorship of difficult conversations.

No—it simply means professors should use their discernment when it comes to the specifics of certain lessons or pieces of course material. If something stands out as likely to cause undue psychological pain, they should mention that.

Remember—people who have experienced real trauma aren’t whining. They aren’t weak—you wouldn’t admonish a war veteran who didn’t want to watch a war movie. You would never call him weak. Trauma creates a very real set of emotions that can afflict people for years, and it is invisible—PTSD comes in many colors, not just camouflage.

So when you see the word “Trigger Warning,” don’t automatically assume that this is a political gimmick meant to silence dissenting views. It isn’t. Take a moment to understand the true idea behind this term, and to develop empathy for those who need these warnings.

This is simply a part of our moving into a more fully empathetic world that is fully aware of people’s varied needs—a movement that will be fraught with difficulties, misunderstandings, and anger, but one that is necessary if we are to continue moving forward as a culture.

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