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Triggering a change

Everyone seems to have something to say about college students and their perceived growing sensitivity. There is a slew of public figures who think this generation of college students are all too quick to get their feelings hurt — namely comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld.

College professors have gone on record saying that they feel restricted in classrooms and are unable to effectively teach because their students are all too sensitive. Those who claim that college kids won’t stop crying wolf all seem to cite the same bizarre stories, like law students refusing to learn rape law at Harvard.

However, these extreme instances are outlandish outliers which do not depict the vast majority of students who advocate for trigger warnings. In the still-nascent stages of an ideological movement, the call for trigger warnings are burgeoning growing pains, but the jackals are too quick to pounce on something that is sorely misunderstood.

When understanding trigger warnings, it’s important to look at post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health describes PTSD as being a change in the “flight-or-flight response,” usually caused by a traumatic physical event. As a result, victims of “assault, rape, child abuse,” and so on develop intense fears of anything that could remind them of that time in their life.

It seems natural then that anyone suffering from PTSD would want to avoid triggers. And thus, trigger warnings were born. They inform individuals ahead of time that upcoming content may have something negatively triggering in it.

There are two main arguments against trigger warnings. The first is that no matter how hard you try, shielding yourself from the outside world isn’t going to work. Despite any and all efforts made, you will stumble into something that reminds you of your trauma. This might be true, but it doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be some effort to avoid that.

The other argument is that avoiding exposure to triggers doesn’t help alleviate the phobia related to PTSD. “The Atlantic” published an article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which argued that exposure therapy is one of the best ways to treat any anxiety-related disorder. They wrote, “according to the most basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.”

This simply isn’t how exposure therapy works. Exposing yourself to your fears may help, and over time most likely will help, but exposure therapy requires the knowing and willing consent of a victim to participate. Forcing a victim to be exposed to their fears as a form of therapy only exacerbates the underlying fear.

In a twisted dose of irony, it becomes clear then that trigger warnings can actually be an asset in exposure therapy. If a sexual assault victim reads a trigger warning and willingly decides to interact with the content, then that can be beneficial in the long run. Unknowingly forcing interaction with content that triggers people’s fears will do no good.

Coddling college students is a fear that has rampantly grown just as quickly as people have pushed for trigger warnings to be implemented in a classroom, but any cases of extremism shouldn’t be used to dismantle an idea outright. When done properly, trigger warnings can only be helpful.