The word trigger is defined as a small device that releases a spring or catch and so sets off a mechanism.
We are all aware of emotional triggers and you have probably experienced them.
Triggers suck and I don’t mean the slur that is used to describe the lack of emotional intelligence in the younger generation. In some way, we have all experienced an emotional trigger. Maybe, you were out with friends and one makes a comment or joke that fucked you up for the rest of the day. You felt attacked, disliked, shamed, or a host of other negative cognitions about yourself. We all have these. We were all once children and likely all had traumas or mini-traumas and didn’t have the tools to properly process the trauma. In adulthood, when we are reminded of these painful memories, we cope with the pain.
Trauma triggers are things that remind us (on either a conscious or unconscious level) of our original trauma causing us to feel similarly to how we felt at the time of the original trauma. Trauma triggers can be debilitating for the victim and extremely confusing for your loved ones. A trigger can be caused by feelings, actions, smells, objects… you name it.
One example for me is, as an adult, the smell of beer on someone’s breath reminded of my Dad and how I felt during my trauma. It brought on flashbacks and negative thoughts about myself.
Childhood traumatic memories, that are so paralyzing, are not processed normally by the brain. This prevents victims from having the ability to subjectively tie the traumatic events, or the feelings associated with them, to the past event. Due to this faulty processing and storage, when a trauma trigger reminds us of the original trauma, we feel as if we are reliving the trauma in the ‘here and now’ and our reaction is likely to hit us hard emotionally. The responses can be physical/biological, emotional or both. Biological responses can include headaches, stomach aches, nausea, increased heartrate, etc. Emotional responses can include flooding of toxic thoughts, fear, shame, and flashbacks.
In my daughter’s case, her trigger symptoms were both biological and emotional. She would get stomach aches and headaches. She would also scream and cry, bite herself, violently hit herself between her legs, and was checked out. When she got to that point, we could hold her or talk to her. We didn’t understand, I started to think these were some kind of psychotic episode. I talked to her therapist and asked if she thought I needed to see a Psychiatrist for my daughter and explore medications. She educated me on triggers and eased my mind that this was a PTSD symptom that would pass.
I went on a mission to begin to identify all of her triggers. If I could identify them, I could avoid them all together, right? Wrong. I quickly learned a trigger could be something as routine as an ambulance passing by, because maybe, she heard an ambulance when he was hurting her. I thought I could talk to my daughter and she could tell me what her triggers were. Unfortunately, my daughter was 5. She would describe a trigger similar to how she would describe her hate of peas.
We learned that our parenting style would have to change. It would require more patience and talking. Her responses to triggers are sometimes heard as disrespectful- we would have to figure out a way to provide her tools to cope with the trigger, while also teaching her respect and boundaries.
This was hard and a shit show.
We tried a lot of tactics. Most made things worse. What we finally learned was if we gave her a “Relaxation Gummy”, the chewing worked to ground her in a meltdown. Once she is able to calm down, she is apologetic and we are able to talk about what she was/is feeling and what we can do different moving forward. This also fixed our issue with discipline and disrespect. We were now able to calm her before things escalated to a point of needing any discipline. Between you and I, a relaxation gummy is nothing more than a gummy bear. There is nothing in it to make her “relaxed”, but it works for us.
In my case, my triggers impact me with headaches and stomach aches. I also would get depressed and start a toxic coping pattern of unhealthy eating (usually not eating at all) and negative thoughts about myself. My daughter and I started EMDR Therapy (which I will cover in another post) which has significantly helped with the triggers. They are still there, but through therapy we have corrected the processing of the traumatic memories and developed skills to correct the toxic thinking patterns.
I’ll share more on our recovery and coping in other posts as well as therapy. Therapy is not a one size fits all, but I do encourage the act of therapy. Whatever method you choose, I believe you have to FEEL in order to HEAL. To feel you need to become a master in self care. I found that through meditation, journaling, exercise and doing exercises that actively changed my toxic thought patterns.
November 2019 will mark our 2 year anniversary of my daughter’s trauma. We still have some type of reminder everyday of our traumas, but we get better everyday.
The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.Abraham Lincoln