Over the last twelve months increasing prominence has been given in the media to how we might avoid encountering situations that could trigger difficult emotional reactions for us. One setting in particular where this could happen is at university, although there are of course a number of parallel situations (e.g. new school, new job).
An article in April 2016 entitled ‘Read it and weep’ referred to the trend of adding ‘health warnings’ to university courses in English literature, the reason being that the subject matter of certain classical works could be disturbing for some students. Many of the classics include references to extremes of human behaviour, limited only by the imaginations of the authors. But there is a controversy here. In protecting students from difficult emotional experiences, well-intentioned warnings could also be misleading or even amount to a form of censorship.
A more recent article entitled ‘Real need or real life?’ by a professor of education acknowledges a need for awareness of this issue but cautions that it has been overhyped (she quotes the National Union of Students’ estimate that ‘80% of students have a “mental health problem”’).
Both articles remind me of when I was on the mental health network committee of a large London office some years ago. Our monthly meetings would typically begin with the chairperson warning everyone present that some aspects of what we were about to discuss could serve as ‘triggers’ for particular sensitivities. For example, if we were intending to discuss the subject of abuse in any detail then anyone there who had been subjected to abuse in the past might have found difficult emotions being triggered for them. Not only could this be distracting and prevent their constructive engagement with the discussion, but it would obviously be personally distressing too.
So whether we are at university or at another stage of life, how do we deal with this question of ‘triggers’? Should we avoid painful emotions, or confront them? And if dealing with painful emotions does mean confronting them, when is the right time for us to do this?
Our emotions are real and have something to say to us. But we all have the right to decide when we are ready to engage with our pain – it is a very personal decision. In counselling, a lot of work is aimed at enabling clients to engage with the reality of their experiencing. Until we can do this we will continue with our own personal strategies for getting through life, strategies that enable us to avoid engaging with painful or confusing emotions. However, provided we are in control of how and when we are prepared to start confronting personally difficult material, there will be a time when engaging with it is exactly what we need to do.