The Voice


Afra Ahmed, Special Features Editor

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Trigger warnings have recently come under fire, garnering much criticism from those touting the ever present catchphrase, “What about freedom of speech?”

These objections stem largely from erroneous ideas of what exactly  trigger warnings are. Not only are trigger warnings misunderstood, but they are also necessary to enhance education and freedom of speech by creating inclusive learning environments.

While opponents of trigger warnings associate them with the infantile complaints of oversensitive teenagers looking to avoid engaging in the material, this understanding is misinformed.

Rather, trigger warnings are for the purpose of preventing psychological harm caused when one is reminded of a traumatizing incident. These warnings, typically given before discussing a graphic or disturbing topic, allow for students to prepare themselves and decide how they want to engage in the material.

This does not mean that students can just opt out of learning about the material because they feel slightly uncomfortable. It also does not mean that sensitive topics are banned altogether in classrooms.

Although engaging in discussions that bring us out of our comfort zones can definitely be educational, feeling “triggered” is an entirely different matter, one that can be extremely detrimental to one’s psychological health.

According to Dr. Douglas Bremner and various other physicians, trauma creates a long term impact stress response in the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.

Stimuli as simple as hearing a word or seeing an image related to the traumatic experience activate parts of the brain that create this stress response, which in turn can manifest as hyperarousal, startle responses, nightmares, flashbacks, and memory loss. These effects are more likely and harsher when one is triggered unexpectedly.

Choosing to use trigger warnings when appropriate to prevent these psychological harms is a sign of compassion, something that is much needed to foster an inclusive learning environment. After all, a trigger warning that seems silly to one student might crucial for the well-being of another. This act of compassion can go a long way in ensuring that marginalized groups feel like they have a voice in discussions.

For instance, trigger warnings can allow for rape victims who would usually feel caught-off guard by trauma to be able to and prepared contribute to discussions.

So for all of those claiming that trigger warnings limit their freedom of speech, you couldn’t be more wrong; trigger warnings allow for those who would normally remain silent to have a voice in the discussion.

The importance of this transcends the classroom. Often, our society places inadequate focus on and stigmatizes mental health. According to, 9 out of 10 people with mental health issues feel discriminated against.

When we refuse to take trigger warnings seriously, we are refusing to acknowledge others’ trauma. This denial of trauma means a denial of the violence that creates trauma.

Labeling those who speak out about their experiences and ask for trigger warnings as “hypersensitive” and “childish” trivializes the violence that they have endured. Criticism of trigger warnings only serves to perpetuate this cycle of structural violence that begins with silencing the victim.

Despite arguments that being forced to confront traumatic topics is good for people, there are plenty of better methods of treating PTSD. As our knowledge of PTSD grows, so does the array of different treatment options.

Yes, exposure therapy can be good for treating trauma. However, this treatment is probably best left to actual therapists instead of forced upon unsuspecting and vulnerable students in classrooms.

People should be able to seek out therapy on their own, and privately, if they wish. They shouldn’t have to deal with the constant fear that they are going to be bombarded with triggering material randomly.

This also brings up the question of how effective trigger warnings really are. If it’s nearly impossible to know what is going to trigger someone, and something as simple as a certain odor can often transport a person back to their traumatic event, does giving a trigger warning really do anything at all?

This is where the larger message of trigger warnings becomes especially important. Even though trigger warnings can’t prevent every single flashback and panicked feeling, they send an important message to survivors of traumatic experiences: your pain matters, and your pain is acknowledged.

Trigger warnings need to be promoted and implemented when necessary for just this purpose. The simple act of asking for a warning can be a step towards treatment and acceptance in and of itself for those suffering from trauma.

So no, trigger warnings are not some conspiracy for censorship, and yes, they are important.

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