Picture a glass of water. In the bottom of the glass is a bunch of sediment and it just sits there. Now insert a spoon and stir vigorously. The sediment is now spinning. That’s what triggering is. The water is your conscious mind and the sediment is most often past pain. It’s not your spoon and you didn’t stir it.
Addicts of every kind and Trauma Survivors get triggered. For people who are neither, picture this: Your spouse/partner/dating interest broke your heart badly. Six months later you think you’re over it and a song comes on the radio that reminds you of them and you start sobbing uncontrollably. Hopefully you feel better after you cry – good chance that doing so released some more sediment and you’re healthier.
Addicts and Survivors very often seek to avoid triggers. In some respects this is very practical and healthy: if you’re an alcoholic in early recovery, it’s dangerous to go to the bar with friends with a half assed plan to drink soda while your friends drink alcohol.
Pragmatically, it can be very difficult to avoid some triggers. I worked with a man once who had a panic attack while in a grocery store. His remedy was simple: not going back there again. Sadly, he experienced a panic attack at the next store – and the next. He only came to therapy because he’d run out of grocery stores within 40 miles of his home.
For the trauma survivor, avoidance often carries a high price and sometimes it’s just impossible. A lot of very good people will be triggered today by the front page of Bangor Daily. Some will be angered that the story of Rev. Carlson has reemerged and some will be discouraged. Many of us who survived past sexual abuse and assault will be triggered and some of us will experience past feelings and memories as though they are happening all over again. These are the most difficult triggers to cope with.
Clinicians who understand trauma and addiction teach grounding skills. These are very simple techniques that help a person have a sense of being connected to the here and now. When we are triggered, we are experiencing the past as though it were the present. Using our five senses to connect to the here and now helps us draw ourselves out of those memories and achieve a sense of personal safety.
People respond differently to heightened anxiety. Some pace and flail around a lot. Their speech becomes rapid and they seem incredibly agitated. This response is understandable but unhelpful. Anxiety is associated with rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure and significant Gastrointestinal (G.I.) distress. Anxiety produces a type of nervous energy that demands to be released and this is why we become physically agitated. The sediment in the glass is spinning very quickly and our minds spin with it.
For other folks, triggering results in what looks like a person having a very intense daydream or perhaps it appears they have fallen asleep with their eyes open. This is a layperson description of what it looks like when a person dissociates. Their consciousness has been altered and they have gone somewhere else in their mind. This is scary and the person experiences a loss of control over self for the duration of that altered consciousness.
When we are triggered we need to connect – to our bodies, to our environments, to supportive others. Simply seeking distractions from what we are feeling and remembering will have short term benefits but long term costs. There is nothing more important in this world than feeling safe. Most folks are free to take that feeling for granted. Those of us who Survived are not. Those of us who have flirted with death and destruction are not. For us, being connected, grounded, and having a healthy perspective are vitally important to our well being.
When we are triggered we lose perspective. We feel compulsions and an overwhelming sense that whatever the hell it takes to make this go away must happen immediately. This is understandable but too often leads to unhealthy coping. I encourage folks to develop very simple plans ahead of time because looking for answers when triggered is not manageable.
“I take a deep breath and I count to ten. I think of all the nice places that I’ve been.” – Papa Roach
Breathe. Pray if you’re into that. Sit and tell yourself, “I am going to be feeling a lot better in a few minutes. This will pass. I am safe. I am an adult and no one is going to hurt me today.” Use a mantra (any simple expression one repeats to themselves). Notice the sounds, smells, sights of your current environment. Breathe deeply.
“Everything passes. Everything changes.” – Bob Dylan
My heart and prayers go out to those who find themselves triggered by today’s news. – Jim