Reading books and dealing with triggers

Recently there has been some buzz around the new novel The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. Naturally, I was really interested in reading this book because the rest of the world was interested.

I went to Goodreads to check out what the book was about and add it to my list of books to read. Here’s some more about that particular novel:

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The moment I finished reading this summary, I decided I wasn’t going to read this book.

You must be wondering why I would give up on reading a book that has been praised over and over again as an immensely beautiful read. Well, because this novel’s synopsis sounds like the book would hit one of my emotional triggers.

I don’t want to go into my triggers, but one of them has to do with existential feelings and knowing/expecting your life to end. For example, I couldn’t read Water for Elephants because the parts that cut to the old man dying and telling his story gave me so much anxiety that I couldn’t go to sleep at night. I had anxiety attacks for a week after watching the series finale of Six Feet Under.

I’ve been seeing a therapist about this for a little less than a year and he believes that my anxiety here is actually triggered by my OCD. I’m worried about dying and death and what happens to you afterward, so it’s not uncommon for those thoughts to spiral out of control and you’re in the throes of an anxiety attack.

So I decided not to read The Immortalists for the sake of my mental health. However, I do know there are many books with many different triggers in them. I really wish that there was some disclaimer on novels where the book will hurt you mentally if you read it. I have some friends who can read about domestic abuse or humiliation because those are feelings they’ve experienced in their life or they have trouble digesting those kinds of brutality even if it is fictionalized.

Mental health is super important to me and I do a lot to try and keep my health up. I don’t go on my phone and do social media after a certain hour and I try to identify and avoid my emotional triggers. But when it comes to books especially when I’m diving into a book I’m not sure of, I have to be super careful. I  hate when I come across a book that I love, but I have to put down because it’s so emotionally triggering. It’s better for me to preserve my mental health than to read a book everyone has been loving.

However, if you do get caught in a book that’s causing some anxiety or triggering you, here’s some steps I suggest you take before moving forward.

Take a minute to breathe

Look up. Breathe in through your nose for a four count. Then hold your breath for seven counts. Finally, release your breath through your mouth at an eight count. This breathing technique helps not only with triggers, but also if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night or if you’re feeling some bout of anxiety.

Focusing on your breathing is a meditative exercise that allows the brain to move away from the spiraling hole of your trigger. It makes you present. It makes you come back to the state you were once in.

Put down the book

This is a heavy decision for anyone that loves to read, but it’s a big one. If the book you’re reading is hitting your triggers, try and see if you can skip over those passages. Was it only that section of the book that was causing you to trigger? Is it a recurring theme?

If so, then take the time and judge if this is the right book for you. There are literally millions and millions of books in the world and while this one may be the next best book in literary history, I don’t think it’s worth your mental health.

If you’re feeling anxious or if you can’t seem to finish a passage without going into a full blown anxiety attack, then stop and put down the book. Perhaps it was a temporary thing that you can just skip over, but if it’s a recurring theme and you’re worried you’ll end up triggered some more, then it might be time to DNF.

Distract yourself

This sounds silly, but one of the issues with OCD is that your brain is telling you one thing and it focuses on it until it spirals out of control. When this happens, a good mental health exercise is to change the subject. Distract yourself by talking to a friend or working on a project.

I’m not saying that this is the solution to all of your issues, but distracting your brain will cause it to reroute and focus on the distraction. For me, I have Candy Crush downloaded to my iPad. I tend to get a lot of triggers at night (night triggers?), so when I’m watching TV and vegging out on my couch, I like to keep my brain occupied by playing Candy Crush. The game is just difficult enough for me to use my brain on strategizing my next move. It keeps me in the present, which is super important for someone with OCD. The pretty colors also helps me with getting out of the darkness as I like to call it.

If you ever see me in public playing Candy Crush, it’s not because I’m bored and waiting for someone. It’s because I somehow hit one of my triggers and need to step away for a minute.

See your therapist

This is probably the most important step and maybe I should reorder these as the number one step. But if you have a therapist, make sure to bring up your triggers with them. Speaking with someone about your feelings and your mental health has been so cathartic to me. It’s like getting another person’s perspective from someone who won’t interject with their own thoughts or try and find you a solution to your problem.

Venting helps as well, but being able to chat and explain that what’s going on in my head is not a bad thing makes living with triggers a little bit easier for me.


6 thoughts on “Reading books and dealing with triggers

  1. A great post. Pleased that you’re aware of your triggers, + working through this stuff with your therapist 🤞🏽


  2. Really great post! I try to give warnings to readers about triggers but I wish authors/publishers would put trigger warnings in their books so I can decide if it is worth it. A lot of times, I just push through when facing the difficult subject content but sometimes I have to step away from the book. I’m glad talking to your therapist helps you and that you have coping mechanisms in place ❤


  3. This is such an important subject! I think I have to be more careful with my reading as well, I’ve read books where certain parts gave me anxiety but I ended up just pushing through them. I definitely have to assess this and make sure I’m not hurting my mental health while reading. Thank you!


  4. I have given up on certain books because of my own triggers, so I can totally understand where you were coming from when you decided not to read that book. A great post and I am glad to see that you are trying to work through your problems by going to a therapist. It’s so important to know yourself enough to do that.


  5. Yes to all of it. Honestly, I’ve never set a book aside because of triggers, but I have set it aside for awhile to wrap my mind around what I was reading and figure out if I could/how to deal with it. It would be nice if books and movies had a list of the most common triggers.


  6. Great post! This is definitely good advice, applicable to lots of triggering situations in life, not just books. I agree on the relevance of trigger warnings on books, but perhaps we shouldn’t leave this to the authors. After all, they can’t be expected to be psychology experts or have experience with all different possible kinds of triggers. Perhaps goodreads should add a feature where readers can submit trigger warnings so we can help each other out. (Or maybe publishers should just get on this!)


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