Reading and Disruptive Emotions

This article examines the relationship between reading and emotional response. It addresses the emotions reading can provoke, identifies potential emotional triggers, and suggests practical strategies for managing emotional responses, like mindfulness and emotional regulation. Learn to identify, manage, and strategically respond to emotions stirred by reading in both personal and academic contexts.

As these three students navigate their research, unexpected triggers may arise, shedding light on the intricate relationship between reading, trauma, and learning.

We know reading can be emotional, right?

Maybe your heart has swelled at a “good morning” text. Maybe you’ve wept at poetry. You may have let out a little laugh at a funny meme. Maybe you’ve felt concerned about a news headline. Maybe you’ve fallen asleep from boredom while reading your chem textbook. In any of those circumstances, you’ve read something, and you’ve felt something. It’s one of the ~magic~ things about reading. Our brains allow us to feel different emotions, based on the content we engage with. But there are a lot of different factors; it’s not always positive content = good feelings and negative content = bad feelings. Our changing moods and past experiences can also shape how we relate to the things we read and expose ourselves to.

Why does this matter?

Reading is part of most of our everyday lives and we get to make decisions about the types of reading we do and when we do them. Part of that decision-making process can include awareness and anticipation of our emotional responses, allowing us to modify our schedules or self-care practices as needed. For example, as an undergraduate student, I was assigned to read the novel There There by Tommy Orange, which includes depictions of gun violence. My instructor let my class know what chapters the depictions were included in, and because I know I’m sensitive to gun violence, I decided to read those chapters on a day when I had fewer obligations and space to process the content. I felt confident in my ability to manage the text, but I knew what coping techniques would be helpful for me if I couldn’t. Knowing what types of content might be disruptive for you, knowing what emotional disruption might look like, and knowing how you should respond are all parts of a learned practice of emotional regulation. For people with a history of trauma, particularly systemic or historical trauma like that often experienced by people of marginalized identities, awareness about how you are affected by certain content can be a powerful tool for navigating school, work, and life. Even if you don’t identify as someone with a trauma history, general emotional awareness can improve your ability to relate to the reading you want and have to do.

What might emotional disruption look like?

Some common symptoms of disruption might include elevated heart rate, dissociation, or racing thoughts. An elevated heart rate might feel like fluttering or pounding in your chest, throat, or neck. Dissociation or racing thoughts might make it hard to focus—you may feel yourself spacing or blanking out or have trouble sticking with one thought or activity. You might also notice a sensitivity if you have lingering feelings or recurring thoughts about the thing you were exposed to. Consider how you’ve felt in the past when something upset or unsettled you. What did it feel like in your body? Would you be able to identify some of the signs if they happened again? Learning to recognize symptoms of distress takes time, and you may need some practice to become familiar with your body’s responses. Some ways people pursue emotional regulation are through the Buddhist concept of mindfulness or through therapy. A mindfulness practice might include intentional breathing and meditation. A therapist might work with you to recognize how emotions show up in your body.

What types of content might be disruptive?

Different content will be disruptive for different people. Depending on your identity and the experiences you’ve had, you might find you are sensitive to particular topics or themes, some include profane language, references to holidays, sexual violence, and racial discrimination. When we’ve had particularly traumatic or impactful experiences our brains connect certain feelings and bodily responses with the stimuli associated with those experiences. Some people refer to a particular set of stimuli as “triggers.” So, if we read something that reminds us of those impactful experiences in some way, our brains might trigger old feelings and bodily responses, like the symptoms we identified above. Importantly, experiencing distress is not necessarily a bad thing, but we want to consider how and when we are exposing ourselves to potentially difficult materials so we can engage with them productively and deliberately if we choose to. 

How can we respond?

We won’t always know what kind of reading we’ll be exposed to. Sometimes you see a headline, or an unsettling social media post and you might be taken off guard. Likewise, you might be assigned a reading for a class which is surprisingly disruptive. In some settings, content warnings might be available to warn readers of potentially sensitive topics, but not always. It can be hard to know when or how severely we might be emotionally affected by something, which is why learning about emotional regulation can be helpful. By paying attention to our bodies’ responses, we can get more information about our relationships to certain content and decide how we should engage (or disengage). If you notice signs of distress while reading, try taking a moment to have a few deep breaths and assess whether it makes sense to read on, or if you should take a pause and come back later. You might also try talking with a trusted friend, taking a walk, or having a snack.

The resources below may help you identify more coping techniques that will work for you. If it feels safe and comfortable, consider letting your instructor know about content which might be challenging for you, so you can work together to navigate course materials. To reiterate, the goal isn’t to never expose ourselves to emotionally challenging material, it’s to evaluate our ability to manage our responses to avoid causing emotional harm. If you’re experiencing distress which is frequent or intense, you may want to seek advice from a physician.

  • Reflect on your experiences and your body’s responses to distress.

What experiences in your life have been particularly impactful for you? When have you noticed strong emotions come up? What other factors (like the place, the time, the people) might have contributed to those feelings? What bodily symptoms can you associate with distress (like stress, anxiety, or anger)?

  • Read with your reflections in mind. 

Even though reading is often identified as an escape, we can’t always fully leave our experiences behind when we open a book. It makes sense that you might experience certain feelings or bodily responses while you read.

  • Pause if you notice a physiological response. 

Starting by identifying symptoms of distress which are common for you before you read may help you notice when they come up in the moment. If you notice a response, it may be a good time to pause and get curious about what is going on for you.

  • Evaluate your ability to read on. 

Check in with yourself. Are the feelings or symptoms passing or lingering? Are your basic needs met (water, food, sleep)? Would a coping technique be helpful?

  • Continue when you’re ready or seek other resources. 

You may feel a lot of pressure to meet a deadline or be prepared for class discussion, but your wellness is the most important. It’s okay to put the book down and take care of yourself first.

Further Reading and Resources:

Mind, “About Mindfulness”

NAMI, “Understanding Mental Illness Triggers”

Lebow and Casabianca, “Do You Know How to Manage Your Emotions and Why it Matters?”

spur:org, “Mental Health Resource Hub”


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