Triggers – a personal story

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I’m no expert. I have lived with triggers all my life but didn’t know they were triggers until I was in my late 30s.

It was a body memory evoking trigger [that lasted] ten years

What is a trigger in terms of a psychological phenomena? Wikipedia describes:

trauma trigger is the subjective attribution that a psychologic stimulus caused someone to recall the memory of a previous psychological trauma, although the stimulus itself need not be frightening or traumatic and can be indirectly or superficially reminiscent of an earlier traumatic incident. Trauma triggers are related to posttraumatic stress disorder(PTSD), a condition in which people often cannot control the recurrence of emotional or physical symptoms,[1] or of repressed memory.[2][3][4] Triggers can be subtle and difficult to anticipate,[1][5] and can sometimes exacerbate PTSD. A trauma trigger may also be referred to as a trauma stimulus or a trauma stressor.[6]

Remembering times in my past where I had been mildly dissociated. I surmised that I may have been triggered and didn’t know it. Then there were the blackouts with substances and then without substances where triggers were most definitely involved, but impossible to identify.

I told myself that my body felt safe

One of the first pervasive triggers that I experienced lasted during all my waking hours for ten years. It was was a body memory that evoked triggers but in the beginning had no emotion attached to it and then there were fleeting feelings of sadness, grief and moments of profound depression. After those feelings passed the one that remained was rage. It was always there in the background.

The body memory was related to sexual trauma and PTSD symptoms. The specific body memory was a sensation in my jaw that someone was trying to open my mouth and I was resisting with all my might.

One of the difficulties with triggers are identifying that I have been triggered.

I told myself that my body felt safe enough to remember the trigger. Each time I noticed the body memory trigger its physical sensations and accompanying emotions I told myself that my body was releasing the memories.

One day after ten years I woke up and thought: “Something is different.” When I first acknowledged that the body memory had ceased it came back immediately. Within a few days it disappeared. It returns occasionally but is no longer a fixture in my life.

One of the difficulties with triggers are identifying that I have been triggered. Sometimes it has taken me days to realize I have been triggered especially if I feel angry or rageful with a seemingly rational reason.

The nature of being triggered flips me into being isolated because perpetrators isolated me to abuse me.

There have only been three times where I have been able to identify the source of the trigger. One was the body memory of sexual abuse, already mentioned above. I was with a client in his home. He pursed his lips a certain way and I had a visceral response of wanting to punch him and beat him up. I had to bite my tongue to calm down and restraint myself from beating him up. Why the trigger occurred was not in doubt, what it was – was uncertain.

In October of 1995 when I was driving back from having had therapy in Pt. Reyes Station I was driving under a plume of smoke from the Mt Vision fires that destroyed over 40,000 acres. The smoke made the sun red as it set. When I returned home I was inconsolably in tears. I called my therapist – why was I so upset? I had asked. “The fire is big and out-of-control just as your perpetrators were when you were young.” She suggested I use a coping tool to calm down and manage the trigger. I did.

The problems with most triggers are:

  • An environmental cue activates trauma from our past.
  • Once triggered we often enter a regressed or frozen state when we had been traumatized – and may not realize we have been triggered (a call for help to a support person or persons may be useful).
  • We may act out as a result of having been triggered. (This can be mild to major and perhaps life-threatening).
  • We may appear non-rational to others where they may shun us or they may also get triggered.
  • The desire to identify and control future triggers may consume us. Realizing this is an impossible venture is a good first step to work on defusing and working with future triggers.

The nature of being triggered flips me into being isolated because perpetrators isolated me to abuse me. So when I get triggered, especially when I don’t realize I am triggered I isolate. It was a strategy I used as a child to survive. It may or may not have worked very well but when I am triggered and don’t know I am triggered it remains my “go-to” strategy.

Thinking about what “just happened” and analyzing it with the thought that “If I can figure it out I can – know what happened to me; – I can prevent it from happening again.

Thinking was what I used as a child from inside the trauma to survive is a habit. But it doesn’t necessarily work very well to solve the emotional trigger of the trauma. Its one of the ways I perpetuate remaining isolated and lost in a regressive or frozen state of trauma from the past.

Its good to have a preemptive plan to deal with triggers in advance so we can get the help we need until we reach a place where we can deal with triggers more effectively.

This is where a therapist can assist or a self-help guide.

I have found that when I know that I’m triggered that I tell myself I am ready to handle it because I’m aware that I’ve been triggered. However if I’m triggered but am not yet aware of it, I know that I feel stuck, agitated, and/or distressed emotionally I try one of the following options:

  • I reach out for support
  • I ask for feedback
  • I ask for help
  • I sit with my feelings and try to identify what they are before taking any action.

This is just a sample and in no way is what I recommend.

What I do recommend is for you to come up with your own safety plan for dealing with emotional upsets, stuck places and triggers.

[NOTE: I was triggered by my partner when we were hiking Mount Tamalpais (in Marin County California). I told her. She wanted to take responsibility by wanting to know what she had done to trigger me. I told her I didn’t know and that it wasn’t her fault. I told her that I just wanted her to know in case she felt me pulling away from her during my process of the trigger and using my safety measures. I’m not sure she understood and decided not to tell her again if I had been triggered due to her response.

Often in dysfunctional relationships we put responsibility on others for our emotions. This is a reaction that does not make another responsible for our response. We have feelings. In relationships – couple therapy is a good idea to help resolve interpersonal communications and dysfunctional dynamics. Individual therapy can be useful too.

When a trigger brings up a feeling in one person and that one person blames another for their trigger – this is an incorrect understanding of a trigger. Conversely of a non-triggered person enters into an interaction with a triggered partner for example especially if the triggered person is unaware they have been triggered then a mess ensues. If the triggered person becomes aware they have been triggered and the non-triggered partner attempts to intervene – to fix the situation then what occurs still could result in a mess.

One possible way to prevent a trigger from creating a mess would to speak with your partner about your triggers. Explain to them they are in no way responsible for the emotional reactions they – the triggered person, may have and that they may need:

  • space
  • try to be patient – wait
  • for the non-triggered person not to make assumptions
  • know they are in no way responsible for having been triggered.

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