Picture this: you're sitting in class, listening to your professor lecture on today's notes. Around you, a swarm of voices nearly drowns you in their sheer volume. Someone beside you is tapping their pencil far too loudly— it almost sounds like a hammer every time it hits the surface of the table. Your project partner is chomping on some chips that create crack of agony every time their unforgiving teeth come down against their crispy body. You hear murmurs from the traffic outside, the humming becoming nearly intolerable. Yet, you manage. Then, your professor snaps. They yell. All is silent for a moment but not exactly. The sound of your irregular breathing breaks the silence as your chest begins to feel like an elephant is sitting on top of it. Your eyes fill with tears and your cheeks turn red from embarrassment. Congratulations. You've just had a panic attack.

Maybe this isn't new to you, or perhaps you've experienced something like this but to a different degree. But what caused the panic attack? The word "trigger" has been used to describe anything that could cause or "trigger" an intense emotional reaction. 

What caused the trigger? For some, it could be the content within the lesson. For others, maybe it's the intensity of the sounds around you. Maybe the sound of eating makes you uncomfortable. For me, it was yelling. Everyone is different, therefore everyone has different triggers. Of course, it would be impossible to cater to all triggers but having knowledge of what triggers you and being able to make your professors aware could be beneficial to your success in college. Sure, if all panic attacks looked like the one I just described, your professor may take notice and address it first. But many go unnoticed. Sometimes you won't even have a panic attack, maybe your heart would skip a beat, maybe your breath might hitch: you might become noticeably more upset or irritated, but all are a detriment to your learning. Learning how to identify and work around your triggers as a student could be beneficial and may make all the difference between passing or failing your class.

How does one identify their own triggers?

 There are several definitions for "trigger" but for the sake of this article, we will discuss two. According to Psych Central, a trigger is anything that "..sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his trauma." If you've had a traumatic event, your trigger may lie in something visually that reminds you subconsciously of said event. Additionally, it can be in sounds such as loud/angry noises, familiar sounds, etc. It can be in the sensation of touch that reminds you of the event. Occasionally it can be found in smells found during the event or taste such as what you ate before, during or after. It could be any one of these, a combination or sometimes it differs entirely. Being aware of your senses and how they might affect you emotionally is a great way to start identifying what your triggers may be or consist of. For more information regarding triggers related to trauma, please go to Psych Central.

Alternatively, Be the Change Consulting defines a trigger as "..a response to a person, situation, event, dialogue, reading, film or other content providing entity that provokes a strong emotional reaction." These can be a bit more difficult to pinpoint than the previous triggers as they don't usually stem from one specific event. Coaching Positive Performance writes that sometimes triggers can be "..situational and social." Social anxiety is a great example of said trigger. When you're documenting your triggers, take note of any patterns between places, people and situations that occur— as they might be clues towards situational and social triggers. However, sometimes your triggers could be entirely internal. Coaching Positive Performance states, "Your thoughts and feelings about situations and people heavily influence your behavior." So when you document your triggers, take note if you see patterns in the way you think before you become agitated. If you notice a pattern, try to pinpoint what caused you to think this way and how you could frame it in a different light.

How do you work around your triggers once you know what they are?

      • Coaching Positive Performance notes that the first step to working with your triggers is to keep a document of them. This is important because it allows you to know what your triggers are, how they affect you and process your emotions in a safe environment. Sometimes, triggers can be unavoidable (especially if they take place in the classroom) but having a journal lets you process the effects safely and discreetly, and sometimes all you need is to just let it out. Life Hacker has a great template for documenting triggers including location, time, your emotional state, the action preceding it, the result and any additional notes on the environment (weather, smells, sounds, etc.). 

      • For more information in regards to journaling for your triggers, please see Life Hacker or if Bullet Journals are more your style, check out Lindsay Braman.

  • I documented my triggers. Now what?

  • If your trigger takes place in the classroom, it never hurts to discuss it with your professor before or after class. Most of the time, they will try to work around it or try to approach the content in a way that's more sensitive to your situation. However, if they are unable to accommodate your need, then your next step would be learning how to cope. If it's an option for you, therapy and counseling is always a great way to understand and manage your triggers. Most colleges have free therapy available to students, so look into whether or not your school offers it. The Penny Hoarder offers more information on how to find out about low-cost mental health services near you if it's unavailable at your campus. Therapy and counseling are especially important if you are a student with mental illness or who has suffered a traumatic event. Please look into it as a tool on your journey. If attending therapy in person is an issue for any reason, you can also use several avenues for digital therapy. Some of the most popular providers for this service would be Better Help, 7-Cups, Blah Therapy, and Huddle. Any local or national hotlines can be a great tool for you as well if you ever need help immediately.

  • Yet you still have an array of options outside of therapy and counseling. Some include self-care such as that found within Healthy Place which includes keeping boundaries, taking care of yourself and practicing mindfulness. If you find yourself more spiritual in nature, the comprehensive list of self-care practices from Tiny Buddha would be great to incorporate into your daily life as well. Some points of interest that I found were to meditate, learn to be selfish in certain things, "get down and boogie" and the "beauty scavenger hunt." Self-care can range anywhere from pampering yourself with a quick-five minute facial to an intensive hour of yoga: really, it's all about how you perceive it. Get creative and make a routine that works for you and in your time frame! Some of the best places for inspiration spaces I've found for self-care routines are Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter. Below I've compiled a comprehensive list of items you can include in your self-care routine:

  • 1. Write down five things you want to accomplish for the day

  • 2. Write down five things you are grateful for.

  • 3. Update a bullet journal spread weekly, bi-weekly, or even daily.

  • 4. Apply a face mask and exfoliate.

  • 5. Apply a hair mask and style your hair differently.

  • 6. Watch your favorite movie.

  • 7. Invite your best friend over to try a new movie.

  • 8. Paint your nails.

  • 9. Practice some relaxing and meditative yoga.

  • 10. Meditate or reflect in prayer.

  • 11. Keep a log of your emotions and feelings throughout the day.

  • 12. Cook something new.

  • 13. Or cook something you've always loved.

  • 14. Buy a coloring book and color to your heart's content.

  • It can be hard when you fall victim to your triggers in college, especially when they seem to get in the way of your responsibilities as a student, employee, family member and friend. However, remember that your triggers do not define you. Your mental health does not define you. College is a stressful time and it can definitely lead to increased anxiety in your life. Remember in the hectic life of exams, homework, internships and classes, you MUST take time for yourself!  If you fail to replenish yourself mentally and emotionally, you'll constantly be running on an empty tank and your work will suffer. Triggers show us what we need to focus on, what is causing disruptions in our lives and how our brain sees the world. Don't ignore them. Embrace them, cope with them and learn to work with them. Your grades will thank you.

  • Lead Image Credit: Pixabay