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Trigger Warnings and Post-Traumatic Stress

By May 13, 2020 July 8th, 2020 Blog

In the past several years, there has been a great deal of attention surrounding the necessity of utilizing trigger warnings in an effort to protect individuals from experiencing a negative reaction from potentially distressing materials. A trigger is something that affects those who experience or witness a traumatic experience; it provokes an extreme and maladaptive negative emotional response. The trigger itself is not harmful, but it is something that can remind someone of their past trauma(s).

The purpose of having trigger warnings is, as the name would suggest, to warn a person who has experienced a trauma of a potential trigger, which would allow for their distress to be reduced. This warning would allow them to mentally prepare for confronting something that could potentially trigger them, or choose to just ignore the possible trigger altogether. While in theory the use of trigger warnings may make sense, there are some jarring flaws and reasons why trigger warnings may not be useful after all.

What are triggers? 

Triggers are anything that results in very uncomfortable emotional or psychological symptoms like anxiety, panic, and hopelessness. Triggers can take many forms such as a physical location,  the anniversary of the traumatic event, or something as simple as a smell, a sound, a certain color shirt, or the place or type of place where the trauma occurred. They can even be a language, an accent, or the sound of someone’s voice.

Sometimes triggers can be predictable. For example, a veteran may have flashbacks while watching a violent movie. In other cases, triggers are less obvious; a person who smelled incense during a sexual assault may have a panic attack when they smell the same incense in a store. Not everyone is affected by the same trigger, even if they experienced the same trauma.

What is Post Traumatic Stress? 

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) is a completely common and normal response to experiencing a traumatic, disturbing, or stressful event. Most people who experience something traumatic will show at least a few signs of PTS. This is because the brain is built to activate the fight-or-flight response, which tells the  body to breathe faster, tense the muscles, and pump more blood when under extreme stress. This fight-or-flight response is a completely natural reflex that happens during and even after a traumatic event. This is one of the reasons why PTS is considered a normal reaction and not a mental health disorder; it is not long lasting. Other symptoms of PTS include shaky hands, avoidance of anything that is remindful of their traumatic event, feelings of fear and nervousness, nightmares, and shaky hands. 

Although these symptoms can be intense, symptoms of PTS typically diminish in the following days and weeks after the traumatic event. Since PTS is not a disorder, treatment is not required; the symptoms of PTS usually fade away on their own. Sometimes, however, these symptoms do not fade and can morph into something far more serious, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Do Trigger Warnings Actually Help?

Harvard psychology professor and PTSD expert, Dr. Richard McNally, explained in a 2016  New York Times essay that “severe emotional reactions [that result from being triggered] are a signal that

[people]

need to prioritize their mental health.”. In other words, severe emotional reactions are not an indication that anyone should have to warn others in advance that material could be triggering for those with PTS or PTSD, nor that potentially triggering material should be censored or even completely removed.

Constantly warning people with PTS and PTSD about possible triggers could potentially even interfere with their recovery. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the avoidance of triggers is not a treatment for PTS or PTSD; it is a classic symptom of it. Moreover, according to these medical professionals, therapies that promote recovery from trauma “involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until [the capacity of those memories] to trigger distress diminishes.” Of course, not all therapies work like these, but all therapies in their essence are designed to eliminate unwanted and problematic symptoms, such as avoidance.

Intervene as soon as possible on behalf of someone suffering from trauma, PTS, or PTSD. Uncharacteristic behavior can become increasingly destructive. Over time, buried and suppressed memories become more and more powerful. 

Importance of Early Intervention and Treatment

Early intervention and treatment for those suffering from trauma, PTS, and PTSD is crucial to healing emotionally. Fortunately, there are treatments available, such as Accelerated Resolution Therapy®(ART), available to help people return to their daily life.


Accelerated Resolution Therapy® (ART) is an innovative, evidence-based therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, stress, and similar mental health issues. Initially, the therapy was primarily used to help veterans suffering from PTSD. One of the major advantages of the therapy is the speed at which it is able to bring relief. Generally, only one to five sessions are needed, not months or years of expensive psychiatric treatment. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy works by reprogramming the traumatic memories that are preventing a person from enjoying the full life they deserve. The techniques work equally well on anyone suffering from trauma, regardless of the type of trauma experienced. Trauma, at the end of the day, is still trauma.

Regardless of how bad things may be, there is always hope, and there is always someone available to help you through difficult times. Contact ART International  to learn more about the therapy or find a therapist near you.

ART International Training and Research Inc., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to Accelerated Resolution Therapy® (ART) for individuals suffering from trauma and other mental health diagnosis through innovative research and clinician training and education. To learn more about the therapy or to find a therapist near you, contact ART International.