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Trigger Warnings and the Stifling of Emotional Growth

Therapeutic support might be helpful for those who want content warnings.

Key points

  • There has been a lot of controversy lately about the use of content warnings, particularly in universities.
  • Advocates of trigger warnings say that it can help people emotionally prepare for the content or avoid it.
  • Research has shown that relying on trigger warnings is countertherapeutic and gets in the way of healing.

There is a lot of controversy over the use of trigger (or content) warnings. Recently the Cornell University administration vetoed a student-backed proposal to include warnings before presenting “traumatic content” in class.

As a psychologist specializing in anxiety, I agree with Cornell that content warnings can be problematic.

Let me explain.

Trigger warnings were originally used to protect survivors of trauma and have since expanded to protect others who might be distressed by certain content. People believe trigger warnings will give vulnerable individuals the opportunity to prepare for the content emotionally or opt out and avoid the distressing content.

Warnings to Prepare for Emotionally Distressing Content

Several studies have shown that trigger warnings raise anxiety in anticipation of viewing content but do not help anxiety when the content is viewed. In other words, the warnings worsen things by increasing people’s anticipatory anxiety. Thus, trigger warnings given for this purpose seem to be ineffective.

Warnings to Avoid Content

In the case of avoiding short-term anxiety, trigger warnings are very effective when people opt out of the material altogether. I spoke to Eric Magnuson, a professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, about this issue. He said that he sometimes shows films that depict potentially distressing content about sexual assault. “I didn’t use to offer these warnings, but students pointed out how damaging this content can be for sexual assault survivors,” he explained, “Now I give a heads up at the beginning of the movie so that students can leave the room during the potentially retraumatizing scene.” Magnuson said that sometimes people leave the room to use the restroom during the movie, so he isn’t clear how often students leave for that reason.

Professors should use their discretion in whether or not to include these types of warnings; however, from my vantage point as a therapist who works with people with trauma and anxiety, it is a sign of a problem for someone if they feel like they need to exercise this option and leave the room.

When I see clients who struggle with anxiety of any kind (including from trauma), I assess how they reinforce their fears. Anxiety sufferers often engage in behaviors such as avoidance of situations that cause them to be anxious. In the short-term, this avoidance is very effective, and the person usually doesn’t experience the anxiety they would have gotten had they confronted the situation.

This avoidance does not help anxiety long-term, and in fact, it ultimately makes it worse. Avoidance begets even more avoidance, which does nothing to solve the anxiety problem.

In the case of trigger warnings, people are given the option of opting out of being exposed to specific material. If someone chooses to leave, it reinforces the notion that they cannot tolerate the content. They are telling themselves, “I cannot handle this information.” The information continues to maintain its power over the person.

Needing Warnings Can Reinforce Trauma Survivor Identity

Researchers have also found that if someone feels like they need trigger warnings, it can reinforce their identity as a trauma survivor. This issue is problematic because people who view trauma as central to their identity tend to have worse symptoms. A person’s need for content warnings undermines their resilience, and they continue to perceive themselves as more vulnerable. This stance can be countertherapeutic and stifle their growth beyond the trauma.

Life Doesn’t Come With Trigger Warnings

Even if a person opts out of viewing material in a college course, most content in life does not come with a trigger warning. Someone could be watching a movie, scrolling through social media, or talking with friends, and the person could be confronted with uncomfortable content and not be expecting it. People need to learn how to tolerate these spontaneous and unexpected presentations of material that make them uncomfortable. Using trigger warnings does not prepare people to deal with life in this way.

Trigger Warnings and Therapy

If you think you need content warnings, it could be a sign that you could benefit from therapy targeting the issue you want to avoid. Although, understandably, people want to avoid material that makes them anxious and upset, therapy could be a great place to work directly on these issues. Being upfront with potential therapists about your need to work on these issues directly is essential. The good news is that symptoms of PTSD and related anxiety are amenable to treatment.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Bellet, B. W., Jones, P. J., & McNally, R. J. (2018). Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 61, 134–141.

Bellet, B. W., Jones, P. J., Meyersburg, C. A., Brenneman, M. M., Morehead, K. E., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Trigger warnings and resilience in college students: A preregistered replication and extension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 26(4), 717–723.

Bridgland V. M., Green D. M., Oulton J. M., Takarangi M. K. (2019). Expecting the worst: Investigating the effects of trigger warnings on reactions to ambiguously themed photos. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 25, 602–617.

Jones, P. J., Bellet, B. W., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(5), 905–917.

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