Professors can be one of the greatest resources in the entirety of your educational career. They can also be your greatest enemy and your worst nightmare. This is especially true if you have to deal with chronic mental illness. There’s multiple types of professors that can be a pain, but when you have a professor that triggers you, it can make getting through a subject seem impossible.

Crash Course on Trauma

The concept of being triggered isn’t new, having originated in psychology in regards to victims of PTSD. However, trigger warnings have also become common in online settings. Essentially trigger warnings are in place in order to help victims of trauma. If someone sees a trigger warning regarding the subject of their trauma, they’re able to skip the content and avoid it. The most common triggers usually involve violent or sexual content, but anything related to trauma can be a trigger.

When a person is triggered due to trauma, it affects their ability to function and causes intense suffering. While many people respect trigger warnings, there are also many who claim that such things are unnecessary. Some will even try to trigger others on purpose. This doesn’t only happen online, but it happens in the classroom as well. We can talk about trigger warnings on social media later, the importance of this post is to talk about dealing with triggers in academia.

Do Professors Care About Triggers?

The answer is yes, and no. NPR conducted a study with 800 professors, and over half of them used trigger or content warnings before their lectures.

Bad news? Professors also had concerns about how being concerned about triggers would affect the learning environment. Some claimed that heavy emotions were necessary and welcomed in the learning environment. Others claimed that while trigger warnings can be useful, people may take advantage in order to avoid confronting their biases about the world. However, some of these same professors claimed to be sensitive to their students’ trauma.

Good news? Most of the professors that used the warnings did so not because students asked, nor because they were forced to. The majority of professors who did use the warnings did so using their own judgment. They felt like the material deserved the warnings, and provided the necessary resources for their students. If you’re lucky enough to have a professor willing to take students’ trauma into concern, that’s great! Even if the professor doesn’t use those warnings initially, they may take it into consideration and prepare students for such content beforehand.

If you don’t have that kind of professor, things are more complicated. Especially if it’s the type of professor who tries to trigger people on purpose.

This may or may not be me speaking from experience. We shall arbitrarily call them Dr. Jorge and Dr. Rick. My worst nightmares in my college experiences.

Professors and Trauma Survivors

Person sitting in window

Professors are there in order to help students succeed. Every school preaches about acceptance of student need, diversity, and general care for their students’ well-being. So why aren’t some professors more sensitive about students who may have survived trauma?

The Effects on Students

Believe it or not, professors may not now just how severe the effects of trauma can be on a student. This is just a benefit of the doubt scenario. Sadly, there are professors who understand the effects of trauma, and either don’t care or believe that warning students about traumatic content will negatively impact their learning environment. Don’t worry, we have information to combat that false information.

Organizations such as The National Child Traumatic Stress Network focus almost exclusively on how trauma affects young students, starting as early as preschool. When trauma goes on untreated, it affects individuals differently, regardless of if the trauma happened in childhood or during recent events.

Students in high school may start to see a decrease of attendance, GPA, and participation, and there is often an increase in negative reports, difficulty concentrating, self-destructive behaviors, and self-worth. Since students living with trauma already struggle with these things, when a professor either purposefully triggers a student or ignores their trauma, it makes the learning environment worse, not better.

Long-Term Effects

For students who have been dealing with their traumas for a long period of time, being constantly exposed to a triggering environment negatively impacts their educational experience even more. Intrusive thoughts become more and more frequent. These thoughts override everything else in terms of relationships, paying attention in class, and studying. No, students can not control these thoughts, and yes, these thoughts have a very real effect on their ability to learn.

This creates a snowball effect, and as students struggle more and more in these classes, they lose motivation. They give up. Some may leave school due to the lack of support, some may isolate themselves, and many have increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Professors who see these effects on their students have been more likely to change their opinion on traumatic subjects. Some will give warning a few days in advanced so students can be prepared, and some will even provide alternate, non-graphic ways of learning said material. Either way, most professors understand that a student dealing with trauma will ultimately learn better if they are prepared and well-supported.

So no, Dr. Jorge, forcing students to be repeatedly exposed to their trauma does not help them learn better.

What if I Have a Professor That Doesn’t Care?

Alright, you’ve got a Dr. Rick and/or Dr. Jorge. Fun. Difficult, but definitely not impossible to deal with. Let’s get into it!

First Steps: The Direct Approach

Depending on the professor, you may feel comfortable confronting them. If you want to talk to them in person, explain that some of the things that the say have a tendency to cause some students to relive trauma. You don’t have to say it’s you, and if you’re more comfortable going in a group (which is what I did), that works as well. There’s always power in numbers: the more disgruntled students you can get, the better.

You may feel more comfortable writing a petition, or a note so it isn’t as daunting. Be sure to be clear about what you want the professor to do and why; your needs may be different from others. Get a list together of what you need the most, talk with other students and add to that list. Decide what would be the most helpful for the most students.

For me, knowing in advanced what each class would be about helped me to prepare. Whether that meant skipping that day or reserving most of the day for recharging my spoons (link to spoons article) or isolation, it was the most helpful for me. Again, my needs and your needs may be completely different, so think of what’s best for you!

Next Steps: Report, Report, Report!

You’ve talked to your professor, and either they pretend to hear your concerns and do nothing; or they quite frankly told you that they weren’t willing to work with you. In this case, you really do have a Professor Rick on your hands. Your choices are more limited, but we can still make it work.

Nobody likes confrontation, so this next option may seem uncomfortable: Go to the higher authorities. If multiple students have a concern with this professor, go to your student dean, disabilities office, health services, the school president, or anyone who deals with student concerns. This is another instance where there is a great amount of power in numbers.

Remember the list regarding how the professor could help you? Show that list to the higher authority. Explain that you’ve communicated with your professor and that there has been no progress. Make sure to emphasize that this has impacted a large number of students by either going as a group, writing a petition, or having multiple students speak to the authority figure separately.

Be warned, this may not work the first time. Sometimes you have to be persistent and bug the hell out of administration before they’re even willing to say, “Okay, we MAY have a problem.” However, I can tell you from personal experience that reporting to the higher-ups can have a powerful impact on how an entire department runs things. ESPECIALLY if it’s not a first-time complaint.

I’m STILL Having Problems!

At this point, you’re probably still in the class and nothing has changed. The higher-ups have either done nothing, or their methods were ineffective. This sucks, and it’s definitely not fair, but there are coping strategies that can help you in class to deal with trauma.

If attendance isn’t required, you may have to go over the material on your own time and get in-class notes from a classmate. However, that’s not always the best option and it isn’t an option available to everyone depending on learning styles and class requirements.

In-Class Coping

There were three types of coping that I used during classes that stirred up my trauma: grounding, academic refocusing, and creative refocusing.

1. Grounding

Grounding essentially refers to keeping yourself in the moment. It’ll help prevent you from drifting into flashbacks, from dissociating, and from feeling overly stimulated from the triggering content. You know that feeling when your mind starts to “go away?” You feel like you’re in the present, but you’re also re-experiencing either the events or emotions from your trauma. Grounding helps keep your mind in the present and focused on what’s going on.

There’s different methods of grounding that work for everyone (link). In private, I like to use audio stimulation such as blasting music, banging objects together, or verbalizing random sounds. During class, I use tactile stimulation (using rocks with different textures, physically counting the grooves in a pencil, etc) when I find myself “going away.” Other types may include visual stimulation, noticing the color of the ceiling tiles, counting how many lines are on the floor, or trying to visualize patterns or shapes in your surroundings.

Everyone’s method of grounding is different. Finding out the best method for you will help you not only in the academic setting, but in other settings as well.

2. Academic Refocusing

Some people disagree with this method of refocusing. If I’m in a course where I feel like I’m going to be constantly reliving traumas, I will try to direct my attention to work in other classes, or practice a writing skill. For example, I may try to work on homework or think of ideas for a paper. I may practice writing with my left hand since my right hand is dominant.

Keeping myself intellectually stimulated helps my mind be forced to stay in the present. I’m also not as focused on the triggering content, and I’m still being productive during the course. Again, this is controversial as it can be disrespectful to not pay attention in a professor’s class. However, it is still a method that works for some people in regards to staying grounded and not flying into a panic.

If you’re against working on other things during class or you don’t feel comfortable with this method, try focusing on finding other grounding techniques. Write notes in different colors to help you focus less on the triggering content. Would putting emphasis (highlighting, underlining, color coding, etc) on topics during the lecture that aren’t triggering be helpful for you?

The point of this method is to keep you academically engaged in different ways that don’t involve reliving your traumas. Again, do what is best for you.

3. Creative Refocusing

This method is probably the least helpful if you want to retain the material in class. However, if you’re really feeling triggered and need to refocus your thoughts to a good place, it never fails. It’s also the easiest method work with.

Creative refocusing is essentially getting your brain to do something fun. When you start to feel yourself getting into a bad place, try to direct those emotions into something artistic. Draw little doodles on your paper, write a poem- hell, you can even write a fanfiction. Essentially, instead of letting your brain go to a bad place, you’re redirecting it by saying, “What if we do this fun thing instead?” Your emotions change from being threatened to being more relaxed and engaged.

If you can get back to a baseline level after refocusing, then try to pay attention to the lecture again. However, if the content is still traumatic and triggering for you, you may want to keep your attention elsewhere.

If you can’t find a coping mechanism that works for you and confronting the problem didn’t help, you may have to consider finding a different class.

Other Academic Options

A lot of options

When you find yourself in a course that is causing you distress, there is always the option to withdraw. In most schools, if you withdraw from a course during the add/drop period, then the withdrawal does not go on your academic record. However, in order to withdraw after that time period, a “W” will be recorded on your transcript.

A grade of “W” does not affect your GPA, however other schools will be able to see that you did not complete the course. In my personal experience with medical schools, one or two withdrawals does not raise a red-flag with admissions. They understand that you are human and that everyone has different circumstances. However, some may ask about the reasoning for a “W,” in which you should be honest and explain your situation.

You can get a medical withdrawal approved  after talking to a mental health professional and the head of academics. Schools may require a signature from a professor allowing you to withdraw. If the professor refuses, be sure to speak to the head of academics for assistance. Every school’s withdrawal policy is different, so be sure to double-check.

So, what if you do withdraw from the class? You may still need the credit as a graduation requirement. If this is the case, you may want to consider taking summer courses or transferring to another school entirely.

Transferring Vs Summer Courses

Depending on what year you are in, transferring can either be simple or difficult. If it’s your first semester it’ll be easier because of how credits transfer. Schools don’t always transfer all of your credits, either due to the credit amount or because of differing course requirements. If you decide to transfer later, be sure to check the transfer policy for the schools you are interested in. Understand which credits will transfer, as well as how much financial aid you can receive as a transfer student. The initial scholarships that students are offered as incoming freshman are often way more than you’ll see as a transfer.

Regardless of the issue with credits, if you find yourself at a school that has a tendency to disregard your mental health, transferring will be better in the long run. Remember that students constantly forced to relive traumas without proper support are more likely to struggle. If you are miserable and don’t see the situation becoming more bearable, transferring is a way for you to start off in a better place.

If your main issue is with one course or one professor, then transferring to a different school entirely may seem excessive. Another great option is completing the necessary course during the summer.

After checking which summer courses your school is willing to accept, you can get started. If the school hasn’t approved a course yet, ask your registrar about course approval. For me, I had to get a signature from the head of the academic apartment, and it was a simple process. But again, every school is different.

If you are looking into summer courses, I would suggest looking at community colleges if you’re low on a budget. I was able to take Introductory Chemistry 1 and 2 (lab included!) for around $600 total. Courses that don’t require a lab are usually less expensive, and community colleges can offer financial aid for individual courses. A single course at a 4-year university can be around $1,200 or so. If you can take the community college route, it saves a great deal of money.

Sidenote: Just as with withdrawals, a couple of summer courses won’t tell graduate admissions to throw your application away. Like I said, I took Chem 1 and 2 at a community college and still got into medical school. You need to do what is best for you in order for you to succeed.


Time for a TL;DR version of this post.

Essentially, students dealing with trauma tend to struggle more in academics. With the proper support and care, these students can thrive. However, there are times when professors can do more harm than help for these individuals.

What to do if a professor is triggering you:

1. Figure out what you need to succeed in the course

2. Tell the professor what you need- either verbally or through an anonymous note. There is power in numbers.

3. If nothing changes or the professor doesn’t care, try talking to the higher-ups. Power in numbers succeeds here: the more complaints, the more administration will be forced to act.

4. Things still don’t change and the higher authorities didn’t help. Use coping mechanisms to help during class, or if attendance isn’t required, teach yourself the material at your own pace.

5. If you can’t cope in class, and you’re in a bad state mentally, consider withdrawing from the course. Check the school’s policy on withdrawals.

6. Take summer courses to make up for the credit that you need. Community colleges are cheaper. Check your school’s policy on transfer credits to learn about course approval.

7. Consider transferring schools if it’s a larger problem than just one class or professor. The earlier you transfer, the better.

If you have any specific questions regarding professors and traumatic topics in the classroom, be sure to comment or email me! Tell me about your stories in dealing with professors like this, and what you thought worked best.

Remember: Take care of yourself!

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