• Blog Post

Trigger Words vs. Offensive Content

Photo: JohnnyH5 / Thinkstock
I was reading two commentary pieces recently from USA Today, one by the newspaper editorial staff; the other, an opposing view, written by Bailey Loverin, a student at UC Santa Barbara.

The editorial staff looked at the use of “trigger warnings” for instructional content within university courses. Trigger warnings are “statements that advise students that a particular book or other work includes disturbing content that might trigger traumatic reactions in certain people.”

The editorial staff felt that such warnings only serve to prevent people from being offended, and at worst, could serve as a form of censorship.

Unfortunately, the editorial board missed the point. Trigger warnings are not intended to label content as offensive, or to tell the reader that he or she should not read or watch that content. Being offended and being triggered are two very different things, controlled by different parts of the brain.
Someone who has never felt the emotional flooding that occurs when a trigger conjures up a traumatic memory may not fully understand what is at play.
Those who have felt the overwhelming fight/flight desire--to either fight to the death or fly away from whatever has triggered a traumatic memory--know that they do not have a choice on when they will be triggered. They often don't know it’s coming until the flooding is there. What they are experiencing has absolutely nothing to do with being offended.
Depending upon the person, the fight or flight response may last for minutes, hours, or even longer. While triggered, the brain goes into protection mode. There is no learning. There is no academic debate. There is only a need to find safety.
The trigger warning allows that person to tread lightly into the content. It lets them know that there is someone behind them preparing to yell, "Boo!" If you know what’s coming, you are sometimes able to control your body’s response.

As Loverlin argues in her opposing view, “If students are suddenly confronted by material that makes them ill, black out, or react violently; they are effectively prevented from learning. If their reaction happens in the classroom, they've halted the learning environment. No professor is going to teach over the rape victim who stumbles out in hysterics or the veteran who drops under a chair shouting.”

As we wrote our content for our Trauma Informed Care: Applications of the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Training Program, we chose to include trigger warnings for any potentially re-traumatizing content, and to allow participants to take whatever time they need outside the training room to feel safe.

Placing a trigger warning in our training has nothing to do with whether or not we feel someone might be offended with the content. It has much, much more to do with ensuring that each person who attends our training is able to get the most out of the learning experience.

For more information on Trauma Informed Care, visit our resource page here.
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