Evidence-Based Answers to Questions About Trigger Warnings for Clinically-Based Distress: A Review for Teachers


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Abstract

According to the popular press, students have been increasingly demanding warnings before being exposed to potentially distressing classroom material. The validity of these types of trigger warnings has been a topic of vigorous debate. Based on a review of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research and closely related topics, this article answers questions that teachers might ask about the validity of the scientific assumptions behind trigger warnings and their use in the classroom. External stimuli causing distress is a feature common to many mental disorders, and trauma-based triggers of distress are an essential feature of PTSD. However, development of PTSD after a traumatic experience is relatively rare. Environmental triggers are often difficult to predict, but warnings may reduce distress among people with PTSD by allowing exposure to be controlled. To the extent that trigger warnings allow avoidance of hyperarousal when trying to learn, they should increase students’ classroom performance. However, avoidance of trauma reminders contributes to the persistence of PTSD symptoms. Although clinical research generally supports the notion of trigger warnings as an accommodation for individual students diagnosed with PTSD, the effectiveness of trigger warnings in the classroom is unknown. In addition, trigger warnings may be a legitimate accommodation for students with psychiatric disabilities, but this does not mean that they are relevant to nonclinical issues.

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