A teen girl with long braids stands in front of her locker looking at her phone and reading a trigger warning

Do Trigger Warnings Work?

May 11, 2023

7 min.

Trigger warnings are meant to help people –– but do they really? Here’s what the research says.

By: Ashley Laderer

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

You’ve probably noticed that an increasing number of TV shows, movies, news articles, and social media posts contain a trigger warning, sometimes abbreviated as “TW” or “CW” for content warning –– but what exactly does that mean? 

“Trigger warning” and “content warning” are terms used to warn people about potentially triggering or sensitive material in online content, TV shows, movies, social media posts, and beyond. They are issued with good intent: to give trauma survivors or people who struggle with mental health conditions a chance to prepare themselves to see the content, or alternatively, to choose to avoid content that may trigger distressing emotions or flashbacks.

But the real question is –– do trigger warnings work? Here’s what you need to know about the research surrounding trigger warnings. 

Do trigger warnings work?

First, a quick history of the “trigger warning.” The term was born in the ‘90s thanks to feminist message boards on the internet, where trigger warnings were issued in cases where there were graphic descriptions of sexual violence. Then, in the 2010s, trigger warnings became more widespread in academic settings, such as universities. These warnings were included in the class syllabus if some course material included sensitive topics that could potentially trigger students.

Today, trigger warnings have become increasingly common, reaching far beyond college campuses, especially as mental health awareness is raised and people have become more sensitive to the needs of people who struggle with their mental health.

Some examples of topics that warrant trigger warnings or content warnings include:

  • Violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Racism
  • Death
  • Self-harm
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicide 

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So, if they are issued with the good intentions of helping people, why are trigger warnings controversial?

Well, the effectiveness of trigger warnings is a subject of debate among mental health professionals, researchers, and even the general public. While some argue that trigger warnings are necessary and thoughtful, others argue that they are ineffective and even potentially harmful.

What are the arguments against trigger warnings?

Research suggests that trigger warnings might not be as helpful as previously thought. 

For example, one study gave readings to a large group of trauma survivors. Some were given a trigger warning; the rest were not. The researchers determined that the trigger warning did not help reduce anxiety for those who received it. In fact, it was a bit hurtful. 

“We found substantial evidence that giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused them to view trauma as more central to their life narrative,” the study authors said. “Some trigger warnings explicitly suggest that trauma survivors are uniquely vulnerable.”

The researchers suggest that trigger warnings act as a stark reminder for study participants of their past traumatic experiences. These warnings also serve as a reminder to trauma victims that their past experiences continue to be a significant aspect of their identity and that others may perceive them as more vulnerable than the average person.

Another study found the same: that trigger warnings made people feel even more emotionally vulnerable. This study’s authors concluded: “Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.” 

Additionally, these researchers made another solid point –– trigger warnings can fuel avoidance. While it may be tempting to avoid triggering content, this can ultimately be counterintuitive to the healing of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One common, effective treatment for PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy (PE). Many trauma survivors may avoid certain places, things, people, or painful memories that remind them of the traumatic event they experienced. However, this avoidance fuels fear and reinforces that these things are dangerous to the brain.

Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD can help people safely revisit triggers with the help of a therapist. Through gradual exposure to triggers, one can work towards desensitizing themselves to triggers so they don’t provoke such a strong emotional reaction.

Furthermore, other research has found that trigger warnings may even prolong negative feelings associated with traumatic memories. 

In sum: More and more research continues to point to the fact that a trigger warning/content warning will not benefit trauma survivors. 

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What are the arguments for trigger warnings?

People who stand by trigger warnings argue that these warnings help to create a safer space for people who have experienced unresolved trauma or are dealing with mental health conditions.

Content warnings help people prepare for the content and give them the power to decide if they want to avoid potential triggers that may worsen their symptoms and potentially revisit this content later when they feel more stable. 

Some supporters also argue that trigger warnings promote empathy for people with different experiences.

Still, a growing body of research points to trigger warnings being ineffective. 

How to cope with triggering content

Sometimes, exposure to triggering content can be difficult and overwhelming for many people –– trigger warning or not. Not to mention, triggers aren’t only in media. They’re out in the world, too. 

If you are a trauma survivor or have PTSD, there are various ways to cope with triggers. Here are five tips.

1. Therapy

If content triggers you, you may have a mental health condition that could benefit from therapy. A therapist can teach you healthy ways to cope with trauma and difficult emotions. If you are a trauma survivor and haven’t sought professional mental health care, therapy can make a world of difference in helping you unpack the trauma and even grow from it.

Aside from the aforementioned prolonged exposure therapy, examples of other types of therapy used for trauma are: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT will help you understand the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You’ll learn to identify unhealthy thoughts and behaviors linked to your trauma and new healthy ways to think and cope with difficult emotions.
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT): TF-CBT is a form of CBT specifically designed for kids or teens with trauma, along with their caretakers. This treatment involves a combination of individual therapy and family therapy with caregivers. Trauma survivors get educated on trauma’s effects and learn healthy ways to deal with trauma –– such as emotional regulation tools, coping skills, and looking at trauma in a new light. 
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR utilizes your eye movements or another type of bilateral (left and right) stimulation to help process emotional memories associated with traumatic events. This method can help you process trauma more quickly and become more desensitized to it. 

2. Step away

If you’re reading something or watching a show and feel extremely triggered, especially if your trauma is fresh, take a break. Step away from it. Turn off that movie or TV show, log out of your social media platforms, or exit the news article. You don't need to continue to expose yourself if it is extremely distressing, especially if you don’t have coping skills or an exposure plan in place from a therapist. Once you have worked on healing, it will be easier for you to experience potentially triggering content because you have skills in place to deal with it. 

A young woman recovering from trauma

3. Self-soothe

After stepping away, take the time to engage in a calming activity to self-soothe. Practice self-care methods such as: 

  • Deep breathing
  • Meditating
  • Exercising 
  • Going for a walk
  • Journaling
  • Making art

4. Use grounding techniques

Grounding techniques involve focusing on the present moment and your physical surroundings. They are especially helpful if you’re experiencing an intense trauma response or flashback.

Essentially, grounding can help you feel more safe and present in this very moment –– knowing that you are safe and not back in that traumatic event. 

Examples of grounding techniques are deep breathing exercises or using self-talk. Another popular tool is the “5-4-3-2-1” technique. This method calls for you to:

  • Name five things that you see
  • Name four things that you can feel or touch
  • Name three things that you hear
  • Name two things that you smell
  • Name one thing that you taste 

5. Seek support from a loved one 

You do not have to go through trauma alone. That’s what friends and families are for. Reach out to a trusted loved one for support. Talking about your emotions and experiences can help you process your feelings. Not to mention, your loved one may have some great advice to share, and you may even inspire them to open up, as well.

How Charlie Health can help 

If you’re a teen or young adult who is a trauma survivor, Charlie Health may be able to help you.

Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program provides personalized services and various treatment modalities for teens, young adults, and families dealing with various mental health struggles, including trauma and co-occurring conditions.

In this program, you’ll get matched with a trauma-informed therapist who meets your specific needs. Plus, you’ll meet a group of peers who face similar struggles to help you remember you are not alone. 

With trauma-informed care and a supportive community, you can push forward, grow, and thrive after trauma. Begin your healing journey with Charlie Health today.

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