Triggers – Going Down To Trigger Town
The word trigger is overused these days. And because of that, most people don’t take it seriously when someone legitimately expresses that they have been triggered. Instead of its original meaning, which is being reminded of an event from the past, people now use the term to say that they are offended. That is not the same thing. Getting triggered is a terrible experience which can lead to flashbacks, to unhealthy behaviour and dangerous risk-taking.
What is a Trigger?
While a trigger can be a positive reminder of something that has happened in your past (think: the smell of fresh-baked cookies reminds you of Christmas at your grandmother’s), more often than not, the term describes being reminded of a traumatic situation. It can be a sound, a smell, a certain touch, a certain behaviour, a certain word, or a certain place. Anything can be a trigger. They are personal and linked to what you have have been through.
Everyone has things that remind them of bad events that they have been through. But for some, like me, triggers can lead to flashbacks, to suicidal behaviour, or to self-harm. Life can become a trigger-field. The most common response to that is avoidance, which is not healthy at all in the long run.
I have been through severe trauma during my childhood and as a result of that, and other traumatic events later in life, I suffer from mental illness. I also suffer from Bipolar Disorder, but that is not linked to my trauma. So as you might have guessed it. There are a lot of things that are triggers for me and that make my life pretty difficult.
Now, it is a bit odd, but sex is not a trigger for me. Physical pain is not a trigger for me. Although I had to endure severe sexual and physical abuse, I am fine with pain and sex. It is just sometimes, in very specific situations, that I get triggered during intimate moments. It can really go into two directions with someone who has been through sexual and physical childhood trauma: either they avoid sex and physical closeness, or they embrace it and even use their past to their advantage by being able to dissociate from or sexually enjoy physical pain. I definitely belong in the second category!
My triggers are different. I have some of the most common triggers that many people with trauma have: loud noises, darkness, being cornered. Those are pretty common triggers, But I have some triggers that are very much related to my personal trauma.
Conflict, People with Authority, Being Ignored
I can not deal with conflict. The moment someone tries to get into an argument with me or gets angry, I get extremely scared. I don’t mean uncomfortable, no, I get scared. I get afraid that I will get hurt, punished, beaten, punched and verbally abused. First I freeze and then I try to soothe whoever has started the argument (also called fawning).
While conflict sometimes can stay on a level of discomfort, expressions of anger and yelling are such huge triggers for me, that I start dissociating right away. My mind floats away and is not connected to my body anymore. I am far far away from reality, and everything around me gets blurry. It is my brain’s defense mechanism to threat. To me, anger, yelling and conflict, are threats. This trigger comes from my childhood where I lived in constant fear of my erratic, loud, yelling and violent father.
Another very specific trigger that I have are people of authority. I get absolutely anxious and scared when I am faced with someone who has authority over me, or who is in a position of power. And if they in any way question me, corner me with questions or try to make sure that I understand how little power I have in my connection with them, I panic. It is an absolute moment of terror. I feel as if they are going to hurt me, I feel unsafe, I feel like they might kill me. I can’t even accurately describe that specific feeling of dread and horror.
This kind of trigger makes me avoid doctors, for instance, It is definitely linked to the helplessness I felt as a child when being in the presence of my father, but also to doctors who have abused me, and the times I had to spend at the hospital as a child.
I also get easily triggered by being ignored when I am vulnerable. This can happen in many different ways. I could try to talk about myself and open up, and the person I am talking to, ignores me or seems distracted. It could also be in a sexual way: I am aroused and I express that state directly, but I am being ignored, laughed at, or even worse, they just walk away. When I was a teen, I was sexually abused by a bunch of jocks at my highschool. I am not going into detail, but it went on for months and part of it always included them laughing at my arousal, humiliating me when I was in a vulnerable position and ignoring my discomfort.
So while I am not triggered by pain, by sex, by reading, seeing or hearing about other people’s pain and trauma, I am triggered by specific behaviour. My triggers are personal to me and while I can ask for respect and not being ignored when being vulnerable, I can’t always avoid being triggered.
Handling my Triggers
Still, I am not one to blame others. A lot of times we can not control what triggers us, or when something triggers us. It often comes out of nowhere, and we are not prepared at all. And then we are suddenly in a flashback and re-experience a terrifying and overwhelming event. Even though it might seem impossible to control when and if I get triggered, there are some things I can do to at least decrease the possibility of a trigger causing a flashback.
I don’t engage with triggering people and I cut toxic people out of my life. As a result of that, I am not in touch with my abusers anymore and I also disengage from and cut out people from my life who are prone to sudden anger attacks, or like to threaten others. I decide who I want in my life. As much as I want to be good for others, the people in my life should be good for me too.
I avoid triggering situations. This can develop into unhealthy behaviour and I must admit that it has done that for me in certain cases, like avoiding doctors. But I can still avoid being vulnerable with unsafe people, for instance.
I am also trying to be generally less vulnerable by practicing self-care, so things don’t trigger me as much. There are safety plans for when a trigger hits me too sudden and I get dangerous urges. And I know how to handle a flashback and how to ground.
In the long run, to be able to not get bothered by a trigger anymore, I need to process the trauma that has planted that trigger inside my mind. But that seems quite impossible at this point, as I don’t have professional support. So all I can do is handle a trigger when it is happening, and hope it won’t throw me into a flashback. Such is the life of a trauma-survivor.