THE NATURE OF TRIGGERS:
1. (of a mechanism) activated by a trigger.
"a triggered alarm"
2. (of a response) caused by particular action, process, or situation.
"a triggered memory of his childhood"
When I’m triggered, emotionally I go back in time to the genesis of whatever traumatic event has caused me harm. I go into survival mode. My adult self disappears and I function more primally. My amygdala is hijacked and logic goes out the window. I sometimes make childlike decisions when I wish my mature self would take the steering wheel. A perceived threat occurs as an actual threat and I am in an altered state.
I have some specific triggers and they can show up at any time. They are like emotional land mines, some of which I am aware of and can attempt to avoid, but I don’t always know where they are or when they will be detonated. They can be big mines or small, causing anything from temporary distraction from the present moment, to a panic attack, to full physical paralysis. Sometimes I expect them because of what I’m doing or where I’m going, sometimes they hit out of the blue. Sometimes I think I have successfully navigated around them only to find myself in bed for days unable to function.
When I’m triggered, time is not linear, past and present co-existing in the same moment and it’s hard to separate them. It’s a bit like “the upside down” in Stranger Things. The landscape is similar to the present moment but it occurs in an altered way which makes it very hard to traverse.
Triggers can be anything. Seeing a food commercial and then being compelled to go and get that food is a state of being triggered. Traumatic triggers can appear anywhere and anytime. A smell, a tone of voice, a touch, a photograph, a face, a color, a name. Sometimes they are predictable, like knowing I will see someone who is associated with my harm, or driving near a building where something bad happened. Other times they appear out of the blue. The worst times are when I’m caught off guard.
There are a lot of photographs in the building I use to work in, of actors in shows from the past 50 years. They are all over the building. Many years ago, I was walking down a hallway while on a break, casually looking at the pictures as I walked. I usually rushed past these photographs, on my way from one thing to the other. This day I was not in a rush. I would look at a picture then read the description. I came across one picture in particular and my heart felt like it went onto my throat. In it was a person who had caused me great physical and emotional harm twenty years earlier. I was emotionally catapulted to a different time and had no control over how it affected me. My chest got heavy and I could barely breath. When I looked away the hallway was darker and visually distorted, like in a movie when they use a special camera effect to make it look like the room gets longer. Some things went visually into hyper focus, others became blurry. My knees got weak and I felt like I was going to fall down. I had to hold onto the wall to get myself to a chair, which at that moment seemed like it was several yards away, but when I went back later it was, in reality, only a few feet away.
I’ve been triggered to the point where I felt actual physical pain from being sexually assaulted decades earlier. My body remembered that assault just as much as my mind remembered it. A phantom pain that took several hours to dissipate. If a doctor had examined me at that moment, they would not have seen a wound, but my body felt it as if it had just happened. This is the nature of triggers.
Practicing self-care is incredibly difficult for me to do. Often, in the attempt to take care of myself, I hurt the people around me. I’m a fully functioning adult, capable of handling difficult tasks, accomplished and seen as highly competent, emotionally intelligent. But there is a way in which I feel infantile. There is a part of my development that was arrested when I was 10 years old. I became an adult in one sense, my childhood ripped from me, forced into an adult version of myself I was not ready to embody, and frozen in time in another. There is a mental chasm I desperately want to pull together, a fissure I need to fix. I struggle to bring my adult self into the present moment, trying to nurture the wounded child in me when she shows up. I throw an emotional protective blanket over myself and knock down bystanders in the process. It’s an imperfect, clumsy, messy business, tending to triggers.
I’m learning. I try to see the moments when I stumble as opportunities to grow and not beat the shit out of myself emotionally when I don’t do things right. I’m pretty good a that. Beating the shit out of myself I mean. I want to do better, to care for myself gracefully when I’m in that altered state. I’m certain I will fail miserably sometimes, but will strive to be my best self, with varying levels of success. Healing is a journey, and I have more work to do.