Trauma trigger

experience that causes someone to recall a previous traumatic memory

A trauma trigger is a psychological stimulus that prompts involuntary recall of a previous traumatic experience.


  • A current threat to academic freedom in the classroom comes from a demand that teachers provide warnings in advance if assigned material contains anything that might trigger difficult emotional responses for students. ... The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement.
  • Trigger warnings are largely perceived as protecting young women and, to a lesser extent, other marginalized groups – people of color, LGBT people, people with mental illnesses. That the warnings hinge on topics that are more likely to affect the lives of marginalized groups contributes to the general perception of members of those groups as weak, vulnerable and "other".
    The kinds of suffering typically imaged and experienced in the white western male realm – war, intra-male violence – are standard. Traumas that impact women, people of color, LGBT people, the mentally ill and other groups whose collective lives far outnumber those most often canonized in the American or European classroom are set apart as different, as particularly traumatizing. Trigger warnings imply that our experiences are so unusual the pages detailing our lives can only be turned while wearing kid gloves.
  • Contrast these descriptions with the following “trigger warning” from Margaret Price, one that clearly bears the marks of disability studies and activism:
As I discuss this very difficult subject matter, please do what you need ... to take care of yourself. You may need to take up a different position, engage in some manual activity—knitters, feel free to take out your work—or you may simply need to leave. This is an accessible presentation, which means I’ll be doing things such as describing visual images and offering copies of the talk. Having a copy is useful not only for those who may have difficulty hearing the talk in the mode I’m using, which is primarily oral; it may also be useful for those who need to receive the information in a different time and place, for reasons ranging from physical barriers to this location to experiencing traumatic flashbacks.
Price carefully positions her statement as a matter of access rather than avoidance, incorporating elements of the “trigger warning” (e.g., describing the material as “difficult,” noting audience members may need “to take care” of themselves) into a larger and more familiar description of accessible presentations (e.g., audio descriptions). In so doing, she suggests that trigger warnings—or, as she calls them, “inclusion statements”—are simply one way to make spaces more accessible to more people. Price’s statement encourages audience members to think about what kinds of supports they might need in order to engage with material (e.g., moving around in the space, practicing a focused manual activity). In that same vein, she offers copies of the presentation not only for those who might need to see the text or read the talk, but also for those who might choose or need to leave the space. In this framing, the trigger warning is about making the content of the talk accessible to anyone who wants it; quite simply, it’s about accessing the material, not censoring or avoiding it.
  • Alison Kafer, "Un/Safe Discolsures: Scenes of Disability and Trauma," Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 10, no. 1 (2016), p. 2.
  • Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.
  • Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.
  • The idea that words (or smells or any sensory input) can trigger searing memories of past trauma—and intense fear that it may be repeated—has been around at least since World War I, when psychiatrists began treating soldiers for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. But explicit trigger warnings are believed to have originated much more recently, on message boards in the early days of the Internet. Trigger warnings became particularly prevalent in self-help and feminist forums, where they allowed readers who had suffered from traumatic events like sexual assault to avoid graphic content that might trigger flashbacks or panic attacks.
  • The expansive use of trigger warnings may also foster unhealthy mental habits in the vastly larger group of students who do not suffer from PTSD or other anxiety disorders. People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences, but from social learning as well. If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous—elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism—then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too. The psychiatrist Sarah Roff pointed this out last year in an online article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “One of my biggest concerns about trigger warnings,” Roff wrote, “is that they will apply not just to those who have experienced trauma, but to all students, creating an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to believe that there is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects of our history.”
  • In an article published last year by Inside Higher Ed, seven humanities professors wrote that the trigger-warning movement was “already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” They reported their colleagues’ receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.” A trigger warning, they wrote, “serves as a guarantee that students will not experience unexpected discomfort and implies that if they do, a contract has been broken.” When students come to expect trigger warnings for any material that makes them uncomfortable, the easiest way for faculty to stay out of trouble is to avoid material that might upset the most sensitive student in the class.

See also

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