Anxiety Management and the Paradox of Trigger Warnings
The practice of trigger warnings counters what we know about managing anxiety.
Posted Sep 09, 2020
As I was writing up a series of studies on teens I’ve done over the past three decades, I became increasingly interested in how teens suffer from anxiety, and how they can manage anxiety. Then a new biography of “the woman who cracked the anxiety code”  prompted me to review the groundbreaking work of Claire Weekes.
From the 1960s through the first part of the 1980s, Weekes wrote about the two fears that make anxiety problematic.  The first is an automatic fight, flight or freeze response that comes with any threatening situation. The threat may be from a life-threatening predator or foe, but for teens it is more likely to be an awkward social encounter or a looming exam. These non-life-threatening fears are more difficult to regulate because the adrenaline secreted is not used up in life-preserving action. Instead, the fear state lingers. This is uncomfortable and distracting. Everything feels dangerous, but it is not clear where the danger lies. As a result, a second fear arises. This secondary, problematic fear is of the physiological state that accompanies the flight, fight or freeze response. It’s the pounding heart that comes with the thought, “Here is this terrible feeling again!” and “I can’t stand it!” and "It's going to overwhelm me!" This secondary fear of our body's fear response perpetuates anxiety.
Weeks found that physiological anxiety could not be avoided, but it could be managed by reducing the second fear – the fear of anxiety’s physiological state. She found that by staying with anxiety, experiencing the arc of its intensity, and feeling it ebb, we would tame that destructive secondary fear. Her advice was, “face, accept, float, let time pass.” By facing and accepting the fear, by yielding to it and letting it pass, you could discover your own tolerance and resilience. When you experienced it again, instead of thinking, "This is going to overwhelm me!" you would think, "This is uncomfortable, but it will come to an end and I will survive."
Weekes’ name may not be well known, but her work underlies many techniques commonly used today, including mindfulness techniques for managing anxiety and therapies focusing on acceptance of our feelings. My puzzle, then, is how, with this acknowledged, effective approach to treating anxiety, have trigger warnings become not only fashionable but, in educational settings, mandatory?
Trigger warnings work on the principle that bad feelings can easily be aroused (triggered) by words or references associated, however remotely, with difficult personal experiences. Students are then warned that a lecture, class, news item, or book contains references that might disturb them. It is not altogether clear what the purpose is. In avoiding the lecture material, students would suffer an educational hit. In flagging the disturbing content, the difficult feelings will be "triggered" anyway.
Good intentions lie behind trigger warnings. But good intentions do not always yield good results, and this protective framework sends the dangerous message, “You should not have to deal with difficult emotions. It is our job to protect you from them. Other people should control the environment so that you will not have to confront them.” Yes, we want to protect students from pain and panic, but we also want to encourage resilience, and trigger warnings do not do this.
The very term “trigger warning” suggests passivity and helplessness. It models emotions as bullets coming at us. It ignores the way we ourselves construct emotions as we interpret our thoughts, perceptions and sensations. The practice prevents teens from feeling difficult emotions and engaging with difficult thoughts. It prevents them from learning how to break the fear-adrenalin-fear cycle. Instead of practicing emotional regulation, trigger warnings outsource emotion management to others. They signal, “You shouldn’t feel these things. These feelings are dangerous. They will harm you.”
On the other hand, confronting our anxiety, staying with it, letting the wave pass until we grow calm, is good, instructive practice. It provides the courage to deal with disturbing thoughts and feelings that are an inevitable part of being human. Once someone discovers that the inner upheaval does not destroy her, she grows confidence in managing future emotions. Through emotional stressors and shocks, teens become stronger.
Of course we want to mitigate further pain in young people who have suffered the trauma of abuse, rape, war, or terrible accidents. But trigger warnings do not have this effect.  Post-trauma memories, as raw as the initial experience, fire in the mind and body unpredictably, however mundane or apparently safe the environment. A sound, smell, word, or passing glance will be sufficient to give terrible life to terrible memories.
Trigger warnings themselves raise the level of alert and increase the risk of negative arousal. When young people who witnessed the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech tried to avoid thinking about what happened, they suffered more distress and anxiety in the months that followed. When these young people were, some years later, given trigger warnings to flag violent content, they were more not less agitated by the content. 
Rather than avoid or brace themselves against disturbing ideas and feelings, young people need to face them, stay with them, and learn techniques for surviving with them.
1. Judith Hoare. (2020). The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code: the extraordinary life of Dr Claire Weekes. Scribe
2. Claire Weeks. (2000) [reprint]. Self Help for your Nerves. Harper Collins.
3. H. Littleton, S. Horsley, s. John and D.V. Nelson. (2007). Trauma Coping Strategies and psychological distress: A meta-analysis. Journal of Trauma Stress. Vol. 20. No 6: 977-88.
4. H. Littleton, D. Axsom and A.E. Grills-Taquechel. (2011). Longitudinal evaluation of the relationship between maladaptive trauma coping and distress: examination following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Anxiety, Stress and Coping. Vol.24. issue 3.