Triggered at University and Unsure How to Proceed

I need some guidance around a situation at uni which negatively impacted my mental state in an extreme way, and am hopeful someone here may be able to help me…:

On Thursday I had a horrible experience at university in one of my classes. Our lecture on memory was about to start, and the lecturer was just introducing herself to us. Suddenly, a male professor burst into the room and starting yelling at us all to get out.

He said that he had booked the room and that the university had messed up. He swore and shouted and ranted about how the organisation is a mess and that he didn’t have time for this bullshit. And on and on and on. His manner was aggressive and threatening, and his last words along the lines of “If you’re still here by the time I come back you are all going to seriously regret it”.

I was absolutely petrified. It may seem ridiculous, but considering things that have happened in my life, it makes sense, and I am trying to validate that. Situations such as this are a massive trigger to me. It was such a shock to my system. I immediately went into a trauma state and felt incredibly unsafe and paralysed within myself.

The fact that he had entered through a door which was out of my sight and was standing directly behind made it all so much worse. As I was so taken aback and in shock, I couldn’t even turn around to see his face because I felt too stuck to move.

The instant physical trauma reaction was totally out of my control. My face flushed bright red as the girl next to me starting asking if I was okay. My heart was racing. I felt whoozy. I was overheating. I was shaking and sweating. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was stuck. I really was not okay.

I spent the rest of the lecture in and out of a dissociated state, mixed with anxiety, hyper-vigilance and on the verge of a panic attack. I couldn’t concentrate at all and don’t remember anything we were taught.

Then at the end of the lecture the lecturer asked us what we remembered about the professor who had stormed in and started asking questions about him. We assumed she was going to report him to the university or something………………..

Instead she proceeded to tell us that this man was actually her FRIEND – and that it was all a SET UP.

She had wanted to prove to us how emotionally evocative situations are easier to remember than mundane situations with little meaning or importance. Unfortunately for me, struggling with mental illness, trauma and dissociation in the way that I do, I ended up responding in the only way I know how (and which is a learnt response totally out of my control) and experiencing more of a memory blank than a memory enhancement.

I was absolutely furious when I found out that the entire thing had been a set up. I wanted to tell the lecturer what I thought of her method of teaching; how unethical it was; how it had affected me to the point it had done; and how thoughtless it was of her to adopt such an extreme teaching technique, especially in a Psychology class where no doubt I am not the only one with some kind of mental and emotional vulnerability.

I didn’t say anything to her because I was deep in Emotion Mind, and actually just wanted to get the fuck out of there so that I could feel fresh air on my face and rant to my friends from outside uni who would understand my fear and anger. Throughout the experience I continued working on my breathing, smelling my tiger balm for grounding, holding my water bottle to my cheeks, going to the bathroom and doing TIPP as soon as the paralysis lessened. When the anger starting rising, I continued to breathe in ‘Wise’ and out ‘Mind’ as we have been taught in DBT.

Ultimately, I got through the situation without making it worse (despite having a panic attack over it in therapy the next day), however, I can’t help feel like something remains unresolved.

I really want to write an email or speak to the lecturer or my personal tutor or mental health advisor explaining my thoughts on what happened. I think it’s important that they know and are careful in the future with similar methods of teaching, not just for me but for everyone. We are taught so much about ethics and the intensity of what went on in class on Thursday was certainly not ethical.

However, I don’t want to seem dramatic or step out of line or cause any unnecessary trouble. I also don’t want to seem weak or to accumulate any negative judgement or stigmatised views of myself by the university.

I am not sure what the effective thing to do in this situation is. I would be grateful for any opinions.


10 thoughts on “Triggered at University and Unsure How to Proceed

  1. I think it’s worth bringing up with the professor. I understand the logic behind such a stunt, but I also believe the intended impact could have been enforced without the shouting and cursing and threatening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear, this sounds like a horrid situation and I can totally see how this would impact on someone with your history. I am so glad that you wrote about it, in a thoughtful way, and not immediately jumping to react. That is a great example of wise mind. The question is whether you were in any real danger during the situation (not danger due to your reaction to the situation). This might seem like a cold and heartless question, because isn’t it the reaction that’s the point? Your feeling of heightened emotion was intended by your lecturer, but your prolonged distress was not. A principle in DBT is trying to move ourselves from more abnormal responses towards more normal ones. If we work hard to remove potential triggers for these responses then we will be triggered fewer times, and in less extreme ways. This seems a great idea, and would have saved you – and potential other people -from distress. But this is just an illusion of safety based on not encountering the feared event. If we truly seek wellness, then each new situation that does not involve true danger is a step towards recovery. Let’s be clear – if the guy had burst in with an axe, or a fake gun, then I would be saying something completely different – because the natural reaction to that IS genuine fear, but the implied threat was that he would be cross, and complain, and shout and swear more. All things that can and unfortunately do happen when people behave badly. It is hard, because if you have ever been nearly killed in a hurricane then when you feel a gale you panic. But gales will blow. So (controversially, I know) I would say you already did the right thing – you stopped and thought about it and asked for ideas. I would be proud to have you as my emotion-regulation guru!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christine, you are a star as always…!

      One of the questions I’m supposed to ask myself is “What is the threat?”, and I really did try, but was too far gone and the reaction so physical that my brain was having none of it.

      I think maybe the reason I haven’t emailed yet (this was Thursday) is because deep down I know you’re right.
      My therapist said similar to you…

      I find it really hard to make decisions so tend to ask everyone in my life what to do first. I was going to email the lecturer and ignore my therapist, but then saw your response also.
      I wonder if emailing to share my experience without demanding an explanation or change in future tactics would still be ineffective in your DBT eyes? (I imagine it would not…. But I don’t know why I just feel such a need for them to know how much this impacted me).

      I’m still emotional about the whole thing, but I’m in Wise Mind now regardless, which is quite a feat really.

      Thank you for recognising that and thank you for words, they really help me, as always 💜


  3. As a long-time therapist, I think you reacted in a consistent manner, according to what you’ve learned….. However, I think you are missing an important step, that might help you to cut down on the time it takes to learn to control your panic and triggered responses…. to wit: learn why you are afraid to begin with. Where does the fear originate?…

    The first step to finding the answer is to look inside yourself, where I believe you will find you feel you have no control over anything in your life. This is a natural feeling, one we all experience as children; our response to the feeling can determine how we deal with it in the future, and has, in your case, caused you to continue to feel the lack of self-power, of self-control, that is so essential to our balance, mentally. All of us have the power inside us to deal with what the universe brings to us, but, we must learn to accept that we cannot change anything but ourselves. Fortunately, to be able to change ourselves is all we need to learn, for then we can let feelings go without hanging on to them, or, believing those feelings are the only possible response.

    Once we know we can let the fear go, we can see what the actual issue is, and, whether or not our fear is justified. We fear the unknown, thus, by making it known, we eliminate the fear….

    It isn’t easy, especially when long habits of thought are involved, but, the end result is a feeling of control of yourself that provides the emotional strength to apply the same techniques to all our fears, whether real or imagined…..

    In Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, a useful phrase was included, which is very powerful when repeated as a mantra, as one would with any good lesson they wish to embed in their mind…. It’s called the Litany against Fear….

    “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

    All the answers you need are there inside you, as they are for all of us…. Be yourself, and, be whole. You’ll be fine….

    gigoid, the dubious

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you this is very thoughtful of you. As it turns out however, I do know why the event was so triggering for me, in fact quite tangibly so. It’s something I am working on, and hope to be able to manage better as I process things.
      I know why I am scared but the response is so physical and bodily that I really have no control over it. I am working on it and hopefully will be able to heal from my traumas which have influenced how I react to certain situations today.

      I agree with what you said about only having the power to change oneself, ultimately, and this is why I decided not to tell my university what happened but instead continue working on myself with an aim to better regulate my system and how I respond to “triggers”.

      Thanks for the book recommendation and quote and for taking the time to feed back to me.

      Liked by 1 person

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