According to this useful round-up of the relevant research by Richard J. McNally, a Harvard professor of psychology, here are the main nuggets about triggering. So, most people who have been traumatized don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is fairly common among victims of sexual assault, though about half of those who have been raped recover from their trauma in a few months. But what about the “triggering” stuff? That’s what I’m most interested in. Here’s McNally:
Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.
Enabling avoidance may make PTSD worse. Sarah Roff, a psychiatrist, has sounded the same note in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
As a psychiatrist, I nonetheless have to question whether trigger warnings are in such students’ best interests. One of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, which can become the most impairing symptom of all. If someone has been so affected by an event in her life that reading a description of a rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses can trigger nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks, she is likely to be functionally impaired in areas of her life well beyond the classroom. The solution is not to help these students dig themselves further into a life of fear and avoidance by allowing them to keep away from upsetting material.
Now, this does not imply that we ought to go around trying to trigger memories of trauma in order to confer upon the traumatized the therapeutic benefits of facing their troubles head-on. That kind of intentional confrontation ought to occur in a controlled, clinical context. But it seems clear enough that catering to avoidance by offering speculative warnings and by tiptoeing around possibly sensitive subjects doesn’t really help, and might even hurt a little. It seems pretty implausible that teachers and writers might have some kind of general obligation to do something that doesn’t really help and might even make things worse, doesn’t it?
The piece Will Wilkinson cites at Pacific Standard is worth your time—as is this piece at The Awl and this one at the New Republic and this piece in The New Yorker and this piece at Salon and this piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education and this other piece at The New Yorker.
Yes, many conservatives are guilty of "pitiless anti-PC provocation," as Wilkinson puts it, when discussing trigger warnings and PC culture on campus generally. And, yes, there are students on every campus who suffer from PTSD and they deserve consideration and reasonable accommodations. But it's also true that demands for trigger warnings have been made by lots of "regular students who might feel 'uncomfortable' with certain concepts," as Sydney dismissively framed it this morning. Students who make unreasonable demands for trigger warnings—and then hide behind people who may actually need them when called out—discredit the whole concept of trigger warnings and thereby make college campuses less safe for those people who actually need and might benefit from them.
The left should be calling the bullshitters out, not pretending they don't exist.