In the over 20 years I’ve worked with people who have survived trauma, the word ‘trigger’ has become a short-hand or code word to explain what many people experience in life while trying to find inner balance after a shattering event.
The dictionary defines a trigger as ‘an act or event, that serves as a stimulus and initiates or precipitates a reaction or series of reactions’. It’s a common code word that covers a lot of territory, and most of us are familiar enough with that territory to fully get what someone is talking about when they use it.
When someone is triggered, it is a shocking and disorienting experience. Suddenly, with no warning, the survivor is catapulted back into the traumatic event, reliving part or all of it: sight, sound, smell, emotion. It feels as shocking as the original event, and disorienting because there’s a part that knows they are experiencing something different, something new, not re-experiencing what originally happened. That part that is trying to discern now-not-then, real threat or not, tends to lock up, and action becomes wholly unpredictable.
Medications try to dampen or dull the response. The numbing isn’t just to triggers, though. It feels like the message is ‘Ignore everything that happens’. Yet without medication, the survivor becomes reactive to everything. Either way there is no capacity to discern what is actually going on, nor is there any guidance from within to learn how to discern. It’s confusing, and when a survivor doesn’t know what to do, they err on the side of caution, and respond first and ask questions later.
It’s a miserable place to be, never knowing what the trigger will be, or when it will strike. It’s why trauma survivors isolate or self-medicate. Or lose hope.
There are lots of tools to help, some smaller, some greater. The trick is to use them before they are needed, practice them, so when that mind freeze happens there’s something within that can be deployed effectively.
Unless the survivor is still living in the traumatic situation, response does not necessarily need to be lightning fast. The body doesn’t get this, nor does the mind – the mind suspects a pause is possible, but it’s not in charge at the moment. Practicing a pause in any decision making begins to show the mind (and body) that there is almost always time before an action must be taken. Teaching ourselves to count to 10 has been a coping strategy for a long, long time for a reason. It slows things down, allows us to take deep breaths. It makes room for a pause.
That pause is part stillness and part active seeking for guidance. In that pause is a chance for connection to the deepest part of us, and it’s in that space that discernment happens. A single breath activates the pause, another allows the seeking, another gives enough time to evaluate, to decide what the right action will be.
I know this from personal experience, and I share it with my patients all the time. Is it easy? It often doesn’t feel that way, and yet once we’ve practiced it enough we truly get it, it’s the easiest thing in the world. It grounds us in the current moment, keeps us from skittering off into something that once happened and our belief that it is happening again.
Does it prevent future triggers? No. What happened is real, and humans being what we are, there will be things in our lives that resonate with the past. That’s unavoidable unless we lose memory.
It does, however, give us further proof that, just like we survived the original event, we can survive the aftershocks.