When the return to in person classes is a little triggering.

Since the start of the pandemic my University classes have all been online. I had only taken a couple of classes in person and then everything was shifted to online studies. That was over two years ago and today was my first class back with other people all around me. I was surprised how different people look in person than though a screen. 

A person wearing a mask in a classroom.
A person wearing a mask in a classroom.

Triggering 

I sat in the front row and every time my professor walked across the room and stopped in front of me to speak, my body tensed up and my heart began to pound. I became aware of how triggered I felt and wrote down my observations along with notes on the topic he spoke about. My thinking brain new that I was safe and that my teacher was in no way a threat. As I looked around, I also noted that there were many students present and because I was by the door, I would be the first to leave. Despite the rationalizations I was making my body continued to respond to the threat and he appeared to grow taller and tower over me. The room began to spin in circles, my chest tightened, and pressure began to build in the back of my head. 

The students walking outside of the door distracted me and I was struggling to focus on what he was teaching us. I missed the chat function in Zoom that allowed us to type our thoughts at once, as in class only one person can speak at a time. I also missed being able to pace or move around in the room with my laptop and resented being stuck to a hard plastic chair. 

I asked myself what my fear was about or what memory it came from, but nothing became apparent at that time. When class was over, I went for a brisk walk and made myself a cup of coffee. 

Counselling 

My usual counselling session was only a couple of hours after my class. I jotted down all my notes and thought about what I wanted to share with her. There were two parts that I needed to discuss: the first was what was going on with being so triggered and the second was how to make a decision if I would complete my bachelor’s degree at the University of Victoria’s online program to avoid being triggered or continue at my current school and face my fears. 

My counselor listened to what happened and then offered a scientific explanation. The body recalls trauma and causes triggering much more quickly than the rational brain can process what is happening. Psychology Today has an excellent article that explains the science to is and a quote that sums up what was happening for me is: 

“Activation of the stress response, setting off a cascade of physiologic changes to prepare the body for fast action if needed, is a hallmark of the strategy.” 

The word Psychology typed on a typewriter.
The word Psychology typed on a typewriter. Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

My thinking brain was not able to override my body’s stress response but thanks to all the work I have done with an amazing trauma counsellor, I was able to keep my thinking online and tap my feet back and forth to ground myself. 

The Decision for School 

I have a few weeks left to decide which University I will attend if I am accepted into both the ones I applied at. I had thought that it may be to hard to overcome my response to being around men on campus and should choose the online program. I have grown to love my school and despite the challenge I really want to keep going to it. After I worked through what happened my counsellor shared her thoughts and let me decide. If I choose to attend online university, I will not face my fears and be less likely to overcome being triggered. If that is the choice, it is ok but staying on campus will allow me to expose myself to situations that trigger me, and I will be able to overcome them. This is the option that feels right for me. I believe to be an effective counsellor I need to overcome my challenges. Yes, it is possible to be a counsellor online, over the phone, or for woman only, but I will always have a bias that could impact my work. I decided to stay at my school, so long as I am accepted. I will find out in the next month, it’s not much longer to wait.  

I don’t want to give advice because after walking through this process, I realize that it is such a personal decision to make a choice. I think that spending two years at home has made it more difficult to get used to being around people again. I am quite the extrovert and love being around people. I would imagine that it must be even harder for people that are introverts and prefer being in the safety of their home. What every you decide, if you are having a hard time returning to in class or in person work please know you are not alone.

Links 

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