STUDY: Trigger Warnings Actually Increase Anxiety

Neetu Chandak | Education and Politics Reporter

A Harvard University study set to go live in December found trigger warnings may serve as confirmations to threat, which increased anxiety to words seen as harmful.

The study, “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead,” aimed to understand the psychological effects of providing trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings were first developed to help those experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and let patients know when they might hear or read distressing material, according to the study.

They have caused controversy, however, in recent years with their wide usage on college campuses and other places.

“Some argue that they empower vulnerable individuals by allowing them to psychologically prepare for or avoid disturbing content, whereas others argue that such warnings undermine resilience to stress and increase vulnerability to psychopathology while constraining academic freedom,” the study said.

Online participants were separated into two groups randomly where they either did or did not receive trigger warnings before reading literary passages that contained various levels of disturbing material.

Besides elevated anxiety, those given warnings exhibited increased emotional vulnerability and increased beliefs that trauma survivors were vulnerable. (RELATED: This Hit Netflix Show Program Will Now Include Trigger Warnings)

The study only experimented on participants who were not traumatized. The study expressed future research needed to focus on whether trigger warnings affect traumatized and collegiate populations the same way as non-traumatized populations.

“Although trigger warnings are a well-intentioned attempt to accommodate marginalized students, they may have unintentional, detrimental effects,” Benjamin Bellet, one of the researchers for the study, said, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “Most notably, trigger warnings increase people’s perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma, which may increase the risk of developing PTSD if trauma occurs.”

There were 270 online participants. The study will be published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.

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