OMG don’t look at this!

Trigger Warnings and Trauma

And you did, didn’t you…Trigger warnings aren’t really that helpful.

What are trigger warnings?

Trigger warnings, also known as content warnings, or content notes are alerts about upcoming content that may contain themes related to negative experiences or negative emotions. But are they really helpful? What happens when someone is given a Trigger Warning?

What does the Research say?

There has been some research in relation to trigger warnings and in 2023 Victoria Bridgland , Payton Jones , and Benjamin Bellet conducted a meta-analysis of the research. They whittled down 407 articles to 12 in the final analysis.

They examined four aspects of being given a trigger warning before being exposed to potentially distressing content. These were:

Response Affect:  This was defined as a participant’s affective state after encountering a potentially distressing stimulus. The assumption is that content would increase negative affect, and perhaps a warning gives the time to manage such affect.

Anticipatory Affect: Is the affect in the period after giving a warning but prior to exposure to the warned-about content. The assumption associated with this concept is  that in the lead up to warned content we have an increase in anxiety, in anticipation of something distressing.

Comprehension : The comprehension of stimuli, in this case educational material in the context of being warned about content. Being warned about upcoming content allows us to comprehend it better? This is compared to our comprehension if we are not warned.

Avoidance: The avoidance  of content (due to the warning). This might be a delay in viewing and or not looking at all.

Affective Response and Comprehension

Bridgland, Jones and Bellet (2023) reported that they “found that warnings had no effect on affective responses to negative material or on educational outcomes”. In other words, trigger warnings don’t change how you feel when you look at something. The warning doesn’t reduce your distress or mitigate it.

 Similarly, your capacity to comprehend or learn is not affected. So if you have a trigger warning in a university lecture it doesn’t help you learn the material any  better.

Anticipatory Anxiety and Avoidance

Bridgland, Jones and Bellet (2023) found that “warnings reliably increased anticipatory affect”, and “that trigger warnings did not seem to increase the avoidance of warned-of material”. 

If anticipatory anxiety increases, and there is no avoidance, one way to understand this is that  warnings have no effect on engagement with material or that the Pandora Effect is at play.

Christopher Hsee and Bowen Ruan (2016) outlined the Pandora Effect:

“The research suggests that humans possess an inherent desire, independent of consequentialist considerations, to resolve uncertainty; when facing something uncertain and feeling curious, they will act to resolve the uncertainty even if they expect negative consequences.”

Hence: OMG don’t look, and you do.

So warnings aren’t really that helpful. They have the potential to “fragilise” trauma survivors and anyone who is worried about the content that  might follow them. 

Some more about the potential unhelpfulness of trigger warnings – Don’t read this.

Trigger warnings  have the potential to undermine a person’s resilience. The idea that we must be warned before we might be exposed to something that might be upsetting has the potential to undermine our understanding of our individual emotional response to “everything”.  Causing us to  “fragilise” ourselves and others.

The notion that we will not cope with seeing something, or hearing about something that might involve an emotional reaction undermines the normalcy of emotional reactions. It puts them in a place to be feared instead of experience and understood. It encourages avoidance of emotions, which of course underlies most mental health problems, and is specifically outlined as a significant symptom in PTSD. It can undermine discussion of topics deemed “too triggering”.

We are built to feel sad, happy, fear and disgust among other things. They are all part of life. If we avoid these, what do we end up with? And yes I have met people who avoid happiness – for the fear that it will be followed by something bad…

Mental Health Clinicians

For those who are mental  health clinician, it is worth thinking about why one might recommend trigger warnings,encourage our client to follow them or give them. Is it out of subjective moral, legal, and theoretical assumptions? When we consider that a warning reliability increases anticipatory anxiety and does not have any mitigation of distress associated with it, what is the purpose? To make ourselves feel better?  Because we believe we  can  prevent emotional reactions? Because we think we control other emotional responses? Because we think we are responsible for causing distress if we talk about  traumatic events? Many of the clients I see are relieved to be able to talk about traumatic and distressing events. Bridgland, Jones and Bellet (2023) concluded  with a very clear statement in relation to trigger warnings “trigger warnings should not be used as a mental health tool”.

Some further research for clinicians to keep in mind, in another study Jones, Bellet, and McNally (2020) examined the effect of trigger warnings specifically on individuals with trauma histories. Below is a quote from their paper. An important consideration.

“We found substantial evidence that giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused them to view trauma as more central to their life narrative. This effect is a reason for worry. Some trigger warnings explicitly suggest that trauma survivors are uniquely vulnerable (e.g., ” …especially in those with a history of trauma”). Even when trigger warnings only mention content, the implicit message that trauma survivors are vulnerable remains (why else provide a warning?). These messages may reinforce the notion that trauma is invariably a watershed event that causes permanent psychological change.” In reality, a majority of trauma survivors are resilient, experiencing little if any lasting psychological changes due to their experience… (pg 914).


Trigger warnings don’t appear to be helpful, and may be unhelpful to those who have experienced traumatic events. Most people who have experienced traumatic events are  resilient to these. Clinicians should consider their own process if recommending their clients follow trigger warnings.


Bridgland, V. M. E., Jones, P. J., & Bellet, B. W. (2023). A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes. Clinical Psychological Science, 21677026231186625.

Jones, P. J., Bellet, B. W., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(5), 905–917.

Hsee, C. K., & Ruan, B. (2016). The Pandora effect: The power and peril of curiosity. Psychological Science, 27(5), 659–666.