I thought I might document what a triggered response looks like. Why? Well, for a few reasons.
I have PTSD of the long-term variety. I wish it were acute, but it isn’t. I can contain like a pro. I can hide my emotional suffering and mask very well while internally boiling over like a pot of pasta. I’m very skilled at “riding the wave”, but, when you’re triggered, it takes a lot of insight to know that this is what’s happening to you because your thinking brain is no longer in charge. A much older part of your brain is calling the shots when you get triggered.
I learn by experience and through other people’s experiences–through their narratives. It also encourages me because hearing other people’s stories reminds me that I’m part of a common experience. I’m not alone.
So, let’s dive in, shall we? Let’s talk about it.
I’ve been triggered all weekend. How did it begin? It started earlier in the week. The stage was being set.
I had an epiphany in therapy. I saw a rather grand deception that my ex-husband had perpetrated upon me, and my mind made a connection. My mother had done the same thing. I was duped twice. In a terribly cruel way. I spent an hour in my bedroom quietly falling apart (I am a secret cryer). It wasn’t one of those easy cries either. It was the full-body, ugly, heaving cry. You know the type. Where you feel like your soul and body are going to split from the pain and the interstitial space will form a black hole and consume you from the inside out?
I felt defeated. Utterly erased. I felt ontologically insignificant and alone. Betrayed? That wasn’t the right word, but that could qualify it to a degree. When I am in the middle of these types of emotional events, I do not like to be found out. I feel far too vulnerable. I fear vulnerability. That comes from having been deceived and wounded too many times by people close to me. I can’t let myself be seen like that, but, as I was pulling myself up and out of my personal darkness, my phone rang. A person who is very close to me was calling.
“I’ll fake it.”
And, I managed to hide it well except for that tell-tale stuffy nose.
“Why is your nose stuffy? Are you getting sick?”
Silence. He’s putting two and two together.
“Honey…talk to me…”
I didn’t want to talk. This is my darkness. And my darkness is like a black gravity. I can barely escape the event horizon. I would never subject another person to it. I did what I deign never to do. I talked, and I felt too wide open. Too vulnerable. I can barely regulate that particular feeling. I began to feel terrified. Like I couldn’t defend myself or hide.
This is the beginning of feeling triggered for me. The beginning of flight or fight. Why?
When I was very young and up until my adult years, both my parents would use very personal information against me for the purpose of emotional blackmail and humiliation. My ex-husband would use my personal information differently. He would pretend to feel close to me and then withdraw both physically and emotionally sometimes for months at a time claiming that he was overwhelmed after he had insisted that I share what was bothering me. In all these instances, I was blamed and made to feel somehow defective. He actually accused me of being broken implying that no one else could tolerate me but him. This is a common abuser’s tactic.
My solution at the time? The Rules. Never tell anyone the truth about yourself. Never show weakness. Never ask for help. Never let anyone see you cry. Always appear ‘fine’. Never give anyone anything that they can use against you. What is this an example of?
“When triggers hit, they’re usually unexpected and beyond your control.
And what usually happens next, right after the trigger: You react with old ‘defenses’ or ‘survival strategies’ that are no longer helpful or healthy (if they ever were), and that only make things worse.” (1in6/Getting Triggered)
After doing what non-PTSD folks do and telling the truth, I became hypervigilant, and I couldn’t self-regulate well. I experienced something of a vulnerability hangover.
What happened next?
My close friend went away for the weekend after talking to me every day, and I’ve heard nothing from him for three days. Rationally, this feels normal. To my hypervigilant brain, this felt a little too much like what my ex-husband would do to me, and I tripped and landed on my amygdala.
I became triggered.
“The trigger is always real. By definition, a trigger is something that reminds you of something bad or hurtful from your past. It ‘triggers’ an association or memory in your brain.
But sometimes you are imagining that what’s happening now is actually like what happened back then, when in reality it’s hardly similar at all, or it just reminds you because you’re feeling vulnerable in a way you did when that bad thing happened in the past.
Just as triggers range from obvious to subtle, sometimes we’re aware of them and sometimes we’re not. Your body may suddenly freak out with a racing heart and feeling of panic, but you have no idea what set off that reaction. You may suddenly feel enraged in a slightly tense conversation, but be unable to point to anything in particular that made you angry. Sometimes you can figure it out later (for example in therapy), and sometimes not.
Also, though we may not realize that we just got triggered, or why, it can be obvious to someone who knows us well, like a partner, friend, or therapist. When you feel comfortable doing so, with someone you really trust, it can be very helpful to talk over situations where you seemed to over-react.
Triggers that involve other people’s behavior are often connected to ways that we repeat unhealthy relationship patterns learned in childhood. Things that other people do – especially people close to us and especially in situations of conflict – remind us of hurtful things done to us in the past. Then we respond as if we’re defending ourselves against those old vulnerabilities, hurts, or traumas.” (1in6/Getting Triggered)
My ex-husband would go on trips, and I wouldn’t hear from him for the entire time. He would return and treat me like a roommate. My mother ignored me for almost five years. My being as transparent and open as possible was something I tried to model in my relationships with them, and it was always used against me. I found myself spinning out.
“The power of a trigger depends on how closely it resembles a past situation or relationship, how painful or traumatic that situation or relationships was, and the state of your body and brain when the triggering happens.
If you’re feeling very calm and safe, the reaction will be much less than if you’re feeling anxious and afraid. If you’re feeling little support or trust in a relationship, your reactions to triggering behaviors by the other person will be much greater.
A trigger can bring out feelings, memories, thoughts, and behaviors.
Other people might have no idea that you’ve been triggered, but you could be struggling with terrible memories in your head. Or you could suddenly have all kinds of negative thoughts and beliefs about the other person and/or yourself, like, ‘I never should have trusted her,’ ‘Every woman will stab you in the heart,’ ‘What a loser I am,’ etc.
Reactions to triggers can be very dramatic and rapid, like lashing out at someone who says the wrong thing or looks at you the wrong way. In these cases, your brain has entered a ‘fight or flight’ state and the part of your brain that you need to think clearly, to remember your values and what’s important to you, and to reflect on your own behavior, is effectively shut down.
But responses to triggers can also creep up on you, playing out over hours and days, and get worse over time.” (1in6/Getting Triggered)
I am still in a triggered mindspace. Thoughts like this are ruling my brain:
- “I should have never said anything.”
- “I want to run away.”
- “There is no point…”
- “I can’t do this…”
- “I will be alone for the rest of my life.”
If you examine those thoughts, then you can observe that these thoughts are all examples of “flight”. I am trying to run away in my brain, and, currently, I can’t seem to put a stop to it. Why? Because I’m triggered.
The good news? I’m not expressing any of this externally. I’m observing this. I’m trying not to judge it. I feel physically ill. I’ve had a seven-day migraine, and I’m now taking prednisone which may be contributing to my elevated mood. Prednisone does contribute to mood regulation and lability.
This is how triggers can come about. This is what they look like in the moment. What can we do about them because, to be honest, they are a pain in the ass?!
Here is some excellent advice:
A stress response can trigger avoidance in the form of denial, dissociation, bingeing, substance abuse, self-harm, and other behaviors in an effort to get rid of feelings. These avoidance behaviors, in turn, can trigger stress responses inside because they are reminders of old efforts to deal with painful feelings. The stronger the response, the stronger the impulses to avoid. The effort spent avoiding leaves little energy to manage day-to-day life, and the result is increased stress responses that increase impulses to avoid. What a mess!
Fortunately, self-regulation skills can help you to tolerate (sit with) and control intense feeling states that have led to avoidance or dissociation in the past. You can learn to feel and control the intensity of your emotions to reduce avoidance. This will help reduce the frequency and intensity of traumatic stress symptoms and experiences. This handbook will teach you the relationship between dissociation, numbing, avoidance, and traumatic stress, and will help you to replace old, currently problematic coping (e.g., dissociation, avoidance, etc.) with conscious, more effective methods of coping (Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress, p.28)
Check out Dr. Jim Hopper’s website, Mindfulness and Kindness.
And this book: