When people offer trigger warnings, they’re letting you know that what they’re getting ready to say or write could potentially set off a traumatic memory.
Triggers are sights, sounds, smells, or thoughts that remind you of the traumatic event in some way. Sometimes a trigger is obvious – a news report of an assault might remind you of your own assault. Sometimes a trigger is less obvious, such as in my case a couple of nights ago.
We were watching the news about George Bush Sr. And it was all praise and good things about him. There was no mention of the groping allegations against him. This triggered me.
It triggered me hard.
Triggers are powerful because they involve the senses. Sights, sounds, and smells play a large part in memory and traumatic memories have a lot of sensory stimuli embedded in them, making them easy to recall. This is why when I encounter a particular smell, I immediately associate it with my memories of China (for example).
In many cases, triggers cause emotional reactions before you even realize why you’re upset. Like the other night…
I got very upset and emotional. So angry I had to leave the room to run cold water over my hands so I didn’t hurt myself. I called my sponsor crying. I knew it wasn’t Bush Sr. that I was upset about. I was angry about my older brother and the molestation in my childhood.
Knowing that did not help make me less angry. In those moments, nothing made sense in my head. I was 5 again, trying to say no to my older brother.
I’ve buried this trauma for a long time, but it’s always been there – waiting to resurface. It’s fresh and raw right now because I talked about it during my fifth step. I’m trying to live a healthy, sober life now – so I can’t bury it again. I have to learn how to walk through the pain.
With Complex PTSD there are both internal and external triggers. Internal triggers include thoughts, memories, emotions, and body sensations (like a racing heart). External triggers are more familiar – people, places, and things you encounter throughout the day that remind you of your trauma.
It’s the internal triggers that I have to watch out for. The anger, the stress, and the pain. They make me vulnerable to external triggers like the one I encountered a couple of nights ago.
I’m very stressed right now. Work is extremely busy, the holidays are upon us, and my cat’s health is failing. And I’m doing very little to manage all this stress. I’m not exercising. I’m not eating well. I’m not taking care of myself. So I’m leaving myself vulnerable to both internal and external triggers.
Of course, the best way to cope with a trigger is to avoid it altogether. But I’ve been doing that my whole life. And for the last 13 years I’ve been drowning my triggers with alcohol and drugs. Obviously, I can’t do that anymore.
In order to cope with triggers, you have to recognize that they’re there first. You have to know what triggers you. Now I know that the nightly news is a trigger for me. What am I going to do about it?
Well, what I did about it that night was partly healthy and partly self destructive. I did call my sponsor – I reached out for support. That was a healthy thing to do. But then I stomped my feet and stayed up all night, working and watching movies.
I could have tried to self sooth. Taking a long, hot shower would have helped calm and relax me. And then I would have been able to convince myself to take melatonin and go to bed.
Instead, I did something self-destructive by refusing to sleep. I refused to sooth myself. I wanted chaos. I wanted mania. I wanted pain.
I think the healthy thing for me to do will be to avoid the news for a while. I’ll journal about what happened. I’ll practice mindfulness and try to live in just this moment.
And perhaps the most important thing I can do is not beat myself up for being triggered. Hard moments are going to happen. The important thing is I got through it. And now I know.
Now I need to prepare for the next battle. Because there will be another battle. There will be more triggering situations. And I need to be ready. I think I’m going to start exercising again.