As a survivor of severe childhood trauma, one lesson I have learned in therapy is to face my triggers and fears, and to not avoid them. Doing so is sometimes painful, and I’m always full of apprehension, but the power I gain for myself is enormous!
Triggers are Perceived Dangers
Triggers are things my senses detect that remind me of something traumatic that someone in my past did to me when I was a child. When I say senses, I mean a sight, smell, sound or a touch that sets off alarm bells in my brain and cause me to feel panic. When I first began traveling down the road less taken, there were literally hundreds of triggers just waiting to send me off into a panicked and dissociated state.
I have overcome many triggers by not allowing myself to run, but by forcing myself to experience the trigger. This gives me the opportunity to see, after the initial fear response has passed, that there is nothing harmful going on in the present. I am taking the power back from those who harmed me, and allowing myself to empower myself to see that trigger for what it is, a day, a place, a person, a smell, nothing more and nothing less.
The Human Brain is Hardwired to Flee
The fear response humans have when triggered is something we have a hard time controlling. The reason for this, is that part of our primitive brain, the amygdala, only knows to respond to certain stimuli. It cannot distinguish between something that MIGHT dangerous now from something WAS dangerous in the past. It is activated long before the reasoning part of our brain receives the triggering information, and readies us to fight, flight or freeze. We automatically prepare ourselves to run away by our amygdala sending signals to our bodies that revs up our blood pressure, sugar levels, and fills us with adrenalin, things are very uncomfortable when there is nothing in the now to run from.
How do we defeat our brain from sending us into a panic every time we experience a trigger? It is not easy, nor is it comfortable. We must allow ourselves to face the trigger using all the grounding techniques we can muster. Staying in the present is an important part of defeating our amygdala’s fear response. In this way, we can retrain it and teach our brain that those things happened long ago, and although we can remember what happened when triggered, we need not respond in fear.
Living in Past Fear Robs Us
I know what I am saying is hard. I must practice this all the time myself.
Living in the past is NOT an option if one wishes to move on into the future as a happy and well-adjusted adult.
The next time your amygdala tells you there is danger and begins to react, try using grounding techniques to help you calm down.
There are Grounding Techniques to Use When You are Triggered
Then you will see that remembering what happened when triggered is okay, but responding in fear to something that is no longer happening is no longer an option.
Here are a few grounding techniques that I have used successfully:
Tell yourself that you are having a flashback and are safe now.
Breathe deeply and slowly and count your breaths.
Say or think to yourself:
“My name is _________. I am safe right now.
I am _____ years old.
I am currently at _____________.
The date is _____________.
Say out loud to yourself, “Everything is going to be alright.”
Describe out loud to yourself your surroundings in detail, including sights (objects, textures, shapes, colors), sounds, smells, and temperature.
Feel the weight of your body in your chair or on the floor and the weight of your clothing on your skin.
Touch and hold objects around you. Compare the feel, weight, temperature, textures, colors, and materials.
Place a cool wash cloth on your face or hold something cold like a can of soda or an ice cube.
Rub your palms and clap your hands or wiggle your toes within your socks.
Stretch out your arms or legs, roll your head on your neck, or clench and unclench your fists.
Squeeze a pillow, stuffed animal, or ball.
If you have a soft pet (dog or cat), brush its fur and stroke it.
Brush your hair slowly and without pulling too much.
As you can see, these techniques are ways to reorient yourself to time and place.
Facing Triggers and Fears Head-On Will Defeat Them
Facing triggers and fears head-on is the only way to conquer them. Like most things in recovery from childhood trauma, you cannot go around, under, or even over the things that haunt you from the past, the only way out of the trap laid for us as children by those who traumatized us is to go through the pain to emerge victorious in the present.
*It may interest my readers to note that the following quote, where “the only way out is through” originated, was also the author of “The Road Less Taken”.*
“By good rights I ought not to have so much
Put on me, but there seems no other way.
Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through —
Leastways for me — and then they’ll be convinced.”
Robert Lee Frost
Excerpt from the poem “A Servant to Servants”.