Close Menu

Difficult Course Materials / PTSD / Triggers

As a student, you encounter course material that bewilders, elates or uplifts you. Other class content may bother, disturb, aggravate, intimidate, perplex or otherwise move you. And in some courses (such as literature or film), that is to be expected as an effect, and it's okay. Generally, this material benefits students, even when uncomfortable. It is often intended and natural. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, makes some content more challenging than others. PTSD produces triggers which may be as subtle as a color, motion or phrase, sometimes seemingly unrelated to the original trauma. This occasionally can occur in the classroom. Unfortunately, it is not practically possible for a professor to make a list of every potential trigger in a rich content course, just as it would not be possible to catalog all triggers someone might encounter during the day.

Steps to Take

What's needed, then, is a plan in place for navigating triggering events when they arrive. Taking the following steps will help you develop a plan and feel safe and successful in your classes. If you suffer from diagnosed PTSD or other verifiable post-traumatic difficulties, and if there are specific, predictable things that are unhealthy for you to encounter, please do the following as soon as possible.

  1. If you haven't already done so, be in touch with the Whitworth Office of Educational Support Services (ESS) to have your situation and needs officially (and confidentially) documented. Contact Katie McCray, ESS Coordinator, at to discuss the situation. The ESS office can also help steer you toward other important resources available to you, such as the Whitworth Counseling Center and Student Success Team.
  2. The ESS office and students work with the professor directly to determine whether the content of a particular course is likely to be problematic and what next steps are needed. In some cases, it may be possible to do alternative assignments, but some courses will use difficult material of various kinds as integral to the course and substitutions will not be possible. If your situation will make it unsafe or unwise for you to encounter such materials, it may be best for you to seek an alternative course.
  3. Absolutely do not stall on this. Get in touch with the ESS office within the first week of class to allow for time, further options and involvement of the professor. The last day to add/drop a class is typically the tenth day of the term.
  4. Beyond this course, it would be a good idea to talk with the ESS staff about how to work with your advisors and professors to chart the best path through all of your coursework, given your particular situation.  

What's Next?

Professors are encouraged to reach out to students within the first week of class who have a trigger notice listed on their Memorandum of Accommodation, in order to help determine the best course of action. For example, a professor might email a student: 

"Upon review of your Memorandum of Accommodation, I am aware of the following notice: 'Particular visual images and topic dialogue can trigger adverse effects for the student.' Therefore, I am providing you a list of potentially difficult themes that will be a part of my course. There (are/are no) options for substituting these topics that will still meet the learning objective of the assignment/course. Please let myself, or Katie McCray in Educational Support Services, know if you have questions or concerns about any of these topics. Please do not stall on this. The last day to add/drop a class is typically the tenth day of the term, should it be best for you to seek an alternative course."

Working with ESS and your professor/advisor will allow for a deeper, richer learning experience.

The Whitworth Counseling Center is located in Schumacher Hall. Call 509.777.3259 to make an appointment.