The Psychology of Trigger Warnings

"Arghh! They have run out of almond croissants, leaving me feeling triggered."

During a recent trip to the bakery, my surge in dopamine was brutally crushed. I was cheerful and bubbly, eagerly anticipating my favourite sweet treat. When I discovered that the previous customer had bought out all the remaining croissants for a party, my delight turned into anger and frustration. Without much consideration, I swiftly labelled this as a triggering experience.

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Was I misguided to refer to this small discomfort as a trigger?

In a broader context, many of us have normalised the practice of labelling something as trigger to express minor discomforts. However, a significant distinction exists between a trigger causing mild unease and one that resurfaces traumatic past experiences.

What is trauma?

One of the underlying characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the occurrence of flashbacks. When we find ourselves in a traumatic situation, the brain's fight or flight response gets activated by the limbic system. The memory system within this part of the brain doesn't distinguish between an event that occurred in the past, present, or future. Our sole focus is on immediate danger.

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Should a sudden loud noise or a similar trigger activate the limbic system, we are left feeling as though we are reliving the trauma. It's as if we've been transported back to that horrific moment, and once again, confronted by the same threat response. Crucially, this experience differs from simply remembering a minor discomfort. Instead, it involves the reliving of a traumatic event and therefore re-experiencing it.

The origin story of trigger warnings.

The term originated in the late 90s within internet chat rooms. It was predominantly women who employed this alert on online forums dedicated to discussions about sexual assault. The primary aim was to offer advance notice, giving individuals the choice to decide whether they were ready to engage with distressing details.

The concept gained traction within US colleges. Instructors, both lecturers and professors, were encouraged to incorporate this caution before delving into topics that could impact students deeply. Over time, the concept of trigger warnings spread to various media such as TV, radio, broadcasts, and everyday conversations.

The science behind triggers.

While they generally stem from a place of care and concern, the liberal adoption of warning labels may have unintended consequences. The initial basis for these warning labels did not stem from psychologists or scientific research.

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Starting from 2018, a significant body of psychological research has shown that trigger warnings neither prevent nor induce trauma responses to stimuli. In other words, these labels seem to have minimal impact. Further research has demonstrated that, for some individuals, they heightened anticipatory anxiety even before the stimuli were presented. Sometimes delivering a trigger warning reinforces a belief that trauma was integral to a person's identity.

Read the research article

Redesigning trigger warnings with behavioural science.

For individuals who wish to exert control over their own experiences, trigger warnings can remain beneficial. Some may opt to avoid reliving a traumatic event, while others may choose to confront discomfort. The EAST framework constitutes a set of principles derived from behavioural science that are employed to enable behavioural change. Here's how we can apply the framework to redesign trigger warnings, tailoring them to support individual needs and life circumstances.

Make it Easy: How might we simplify the process for individuals to distinguish between minor discomfort and a traumatic experience?

Make it Attractive: How could we devise a term that captures the attention of individuals who might face minor discomfort, offering them the chance to embrace it while emphasising the potential benefits?

Make it Social: How might we create a mechanism that prompts groups to inquire about individuals' comfort levels, fostering their care and protection from potential traumatic experiences?

Make it Timely: How might we establish cues that prompt individuals to pause and reflect so that they can make a deliberate choice when presented with a trigger warning?

Vishal George is the author of Money Mindsets and Chief Behavioural Scientist at Behavioural by Design

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