Trigger Warnings Can Worsen Traumatic Memories

Summary: Trigger warnings shown before TV shows may have the opposite effect than is intended. Researchers found trigger warnings may prolong negative characteristics associated with bad memories. They also do not increase a person’s use of coping strategies.

Source: Flinders University

Trauma memories can suddenly return when survivors are exposed to material that reminds them of the event, and Flinders University psychology researchers warn trigger warnings on screen may even worsen these negative memories.

Their study indicates trigger warnings do not lessen the blow of recalling past trauma.

The new study published in Memory suggests that warning messages may not adequately prepare people to recall a negative experience but may instead prolong bad memories.

“Trigger warnings are intended to mitigate this potential distress however often they can be more distressing when they come up on screen as a surprise,” says researcher Victoria Bridgland, from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders.

For example, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, warns: “The following episode contains graphic depictions of suicide and violence, which some viewers may find disturbing.”

“Our research investigated whether vivid memories of trauma are more distressing if they happen without any warning.”

The study was conducted with 209 mainly female participants, ranging in age from 17-50 years old. They were given two sessions, two weeks apart.

In the first session, participants recalled a negative event and completed a series of questionnaires, including how emotionally impactful the event felt. The second session asked participants to recall the same event again and answer the same questionnaires.

Psychology researchers Victoria Bridgland and Dr. Melanie Takarangi, who also measured participants’ reported coping strategies, wanted to explore if trigger warnings changed the way people recall a negative memory.

This shows the outline of two people, one shaded black and the other in multi color
Their study indicates trigger warnings do not lessen the blow of recalling past trauma. Image is in the public domain

“Surprisingly, we found that participants who were warned in the first session reported a smaller decrease in emotional impacts from their negative memory, such as difficulty with sleep and frequency of other experiences, over the two weeks between tests,” says Dr. Takarangi.

“Our findings suggest that warning messages may prolong the negative characteristics associated with bad memories over time, rather than prepare people to recall a negative experience—which is the opposite to what these messages aim for.”

“They also do not increase the reported use of coping strategies,” she adds.

About this PTSD research news

Source: Flinders University
Contact: Press Office – Flinders University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Danger! Negative memories ahead: the effect of warnings on reactions to and recall of negative memories” by Victoria M. E. Bridgland et al.. Memory


Danger! Negative memories ahead: the effect of warnings on reactions to and recall of negative memories

A trigger warning is an alert that upcoming material containing distressing themes might “trigger” the details and emotion associated with a negative memory to come to mind. Warnings supposedly prevent or minimise this distress. But, do warnings really have this effect?

To simulate the experience described above, here, we examined whether warning participants—by telling them that recalling a negative event would be distressing—would change characteristics associated with the immediate and delayed recall of a negative event (such as phenomenology e.g., vividness, sense of reliving), compared to participants who we did not warn.

Generally, we found that time helps to heal the “emotional wounds” associated with negative memories: negative characteristics—such as emotion, vividness etc.—faded over time. However, the event’s emotional impact (the frequency of experiences related to the event such as “I had trouble staying asleep”), subsided less over a two-week delay for participants who were warned in the first session.

Our findings suggest that warning messages may prolong the negative characteristics associated with memories over time, rather than prepare people to recall a negative experience.

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  1. What? The point is to allow people the chance to avoid the encounter. Of course it is worse if you are warned and then decide to stay anyway if you feel you may be sensitive to it. The other commenters have common sense.

    Unbelievably ignorant article. I take it the author thinks they are a lot more clever than they are and should probably reconsider how they’re approaching empathy issues.


  3. I recall this being discussed on either 20/20 (abc) or 60 MINUTES (cbs)3 or 4 decades ago. The subject was just slightly different: parental discretion “warnings” and how they simply prepared children who were allowed to watch such content, to be traumatized, which is essentially the same thing Don’t researchers research for other research that other researchers have researched to ensure the research they’re planning to research haven’t already been researched?

  4. As a life long PTSD survivor, this has always been self evident to me. Putting the warning at the start of the show only builds apprehension and anxiety, waiting for the event that ‘may be’ a trigger. Similarly, warning First Nations people that film ‘may’ contain images and voice of those that have passed can have the opposite effect to what is intended. Those most at risk of reacting adversely to the footage, being forewarned, become fixated on seaching each frame looking for their trigger, even though it may not even exist anywhere.

  5. Trigger warnings are to prevent an immediate reaction (such as a panic attack, flashbacks, or onset of suicidal thoughts) before a person is ready to do the work to reduce their avoidance. I don’t think any proponents are claiming it’s a long-term solution. The study does not mention if it included the type of people trigger warnings are typically for (most commonly people with ptsd; having a couple of ptsd symptoms isn’t the same as ptsd). Not to mention that one of the most important functions of trigger warnings in the real world is for people to decide whether to interact with the content in the first place if they are not in an emotional place to handle it at the moment. For example, if I know an episode may be triggering, I would refrain from watching it right before I head to work, because I know that otherwise I will be on edge, panicky, distracted, and so on at work. There’s a time and place for avoidance reduction and it’s not “any time and by complete surprise.” That’s not even how exposure therapies work.

  6. Trigger warnings arent meant to “lessen the blow” its meant to keep viewers from viewing the material in the first place. Having a trigger warning, but still viewing the material and then having a negative memory from it is a no-brainer. The fact this was published with so little thought is remarkable.

  7. The value of a trigger warning is that it gives the viewer time to turn that show off, or to remind them to have a finger on the pause or fast forward button to not see that content in the first place.

    This study only tells us what happens when there is a trigger warning but the viewer is forced to see the content wether they want to or not.

    In a store that sells tvs. A trigger warning appears. I turn away from the screens. If needed, I block my ears and move away from the screens I can not control.

    The reactions/results seen are partially because the experiment had “lack of control/agency to choose what is seen” added that causes its own set of emotions like anxiety, fear, and frustration.

    Having already been told that they will have no ability to react to the trigger warning, no ability to avoid the content, and no ability to stop the content from being seen?

    Yup, it would make an end result as what they saw here. But that isn’t how trigger warnings work, and doesn’t reflect the reality that nearly always a person seeing a trigger warning DOES have the ability to pause, stop, and choose to avoid the triggering content.

    Flawed methodology
    Experiment not reflective of actual conditions

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