A trigger for me is any stimulus that causes my mind to go back to a memory and experience again a strong positive or negative emotion
The Holidays, for example, when The Nutcracker Ballet comes to town … as soon as I see the ads for it or hear the music – it transports me to memories of my grandmother whom I love very much. I feel Joy accompanied with a feeling of loss of not getting to see her anymore now that she’s passed. It’s like sweet and sour soup that you get at a Chinese restaurant, I’m triggered to a bittersweet emotional response.
Christmas wreaths. Not only was I sold by my pimp but he also used me for physical labor, like sexual exploitation wasn’t enough. Over the Christmas season I had to haul pine trees out of a wooded lot, cut branches, bring them to the basement of where I was being held and make Christmas wreaths. I remember sitting at a gas station selling Christmas wreaths and by day and “seeing” Johns at night. Seeing Christmas wreaths now brings strong negative emotion …that was towards the end of my time being sold, trafficked… I escaped a month later… Christmas was my rock bottom.
Facial features can trigger me, remind me of my abusers. Music can be a trigger. Different foods can be a trigger. Smells can be a trigger. Weather can be a trigger. You don’t even have to open your eyes to be triggered.
My most dramatic trigger was at the Meadows treatment center in Wickenburg Arizona. I was there for an experiential “survivors weekend.” In my small group, one girl was talking about a rape that she experienced… I felt triggered by what she was saying, and I just needed to get out of this session and leave the room… I fell into deep Post Traumatic Stress. I tried to stand up to leave the room and I fell to my knees, hyperventilating, reliving my past horrors while desperately trying to hold on … that I wasn’t in my past… I was in the now moment… I crawled on my hands and knees towards the door trying to get out. The facilitator, with his PhD in posttraumatic stress disorder, told everyone to remain seated… I don’t recall what he said to me… I was in a corner beside the door, eyes as big as silver dollars… stomping my foot in a desperate attempt to remind myself that I was right there right then. When I came out of it, the facilitator told me after it was all over that it was one of the worst PTSD episodes he had ever witnessed, worse than war veterans. I don’t say that to impress you, I say it to impress upon you that I understand triggers!
There are many tools for survivors to dissipate the intensity of memories, to deal with triggers. There’s tapping and EMDR and breath work and hypnotherapy, guided meditation…
I’ve done it all. Or at least a lot of it!
When human beings have been traumatized, the brain tries to protect them, to guard them. But that guard, that memory block, can also prevent the therapeutic healing process. Sometimes we need to feel so that we can work through the pain, so we can see that we’re not going to die when we let them out and we don’t have to walk around feeling anxious and fearful … we can feel without fearing that it Will kill us!
I can’t tell you how many times I was in a group doing experiential healing technique that everybody else in the room seem to be able to do better than me! Maybe it was guided meditation … And I would have an overwhelming feeling of panic and shut myself down from continuing on with the process.
What I learned is that little games can help the inner warrior take a chill pill. It could be something silly like making the group stand up and play the hokey pokey… Put their left arm and put their left arm out but the left arm in and then shake it all about they do the hokey pokey and they turn themselves around that’s what I that’s all about hokey pokey! I know that sounds silly but it gets the energy flowing again and makes people laugh, and changes their mental state when things get too heavy and too serious for too long. We have to get heavy and serious but we don’t want to disrupt the healing by actually getting triggered when you’re talking about how not to get triggered!
Watch Michael Singer’s “removing your inner thorn.” His video, on YoutTube, talks about dealing with strong negative emotion, and how to sit with that versus drinking it or drugging it or fucking it away! How to sit with it and let it pass through you much like Casper the friendly ghost could just go through walls… How do you deal when you’re triggered and experience it without turning to unhealthy detours that keep you from living the life you want to have?
In relationship counseling, the therapist might say, “you’re too angry, it’s OK to take a time out, step away and come back to the situation when you’re not so emotionally intense.” The trick is you actually do have to come back and deal with it. There are times when I feel grief, with a much greater emotional response than the situation calls for… That means I have some emotional work to do and this situation is giving me the gift of showing me. For instance a friend of mine passed away and I didn’t fully grieve that loss for whatever reason. I told myself I would allow myself to feel it another time. I put a pause on dealing with it. But then I never came back to it, then a year later when an acquaintance had a sudden heart attack and died, I cried most of the day. I wasn’t crying because of him, I was allowing myself to grieve the loss of my friend.
Being a survivor, someone could stab the top of my hand with a fork, but I was so desensitized that I would not say ouch at the time… but a year or two later… I was totally baffled why my hand hurt so bad causing me to cry in pain! Sometimes getting triggered is an opportunity to heal.
In Untethered Soul, Michael Singer talks about emotional wounds like little splinters. The more we haven’t dealt with othem, the more splinters we have … The more splinters we have – the more we protect ourselves from ever touching anything or anyone around us because it could hurt! So we go to extreme measures to protect ourselves from being hurt. Every time we get triggered is an opportunity to take one of those splinters out. With so many splinters… we can’t conceive that we could ever possibly completely heal, be normal, have healthy relationships, legitimate jobs, a real life… Happiness. Love. Inner Peace.
List on a whiteboard or one of those giant Post-it’s what a trigger is. List all the triggers, both positive and negative triggers. Maybe talk about ways we avoid being triggered. I conduct this practice with abused girls at a Juvenile Correctional Facility. Then I initiate a break! with something physical. Turn on a YouTube of 70s soul train funky music and make everybody get up and dance around. Or maybe the hokey pokey! But you must return to that trigger, that splinter, and deal with it.
I love Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the places you’ll go” oh I love it so much… It is a lovely sweet reminder to go beyond the warrior guard… And reminder that it’s time to love yourself the way you wish to be loved by others. Life is a journey… And these chapters so well characterized by Dr. Seuss’s book, outline that it doesn’t matter the places you go or how long you’re stuck there… What matters is where you’re going. And why you’re going there…
Simon Sinex “start with why” Ted talk on YouTube is awesome.
Why don’t you want to be triggered anymore? How has being triggered added to your quality of life and how has being triggered been a detriment to your life? What would your life be like if you didn’t have any positive triggers (memories)? What would your life be like if you didn’t have any negative triggers?
There are some cool physical things that you can do… Personally I like “grounding.” When you
feel triggered from a negative aspect… take your shoes off and put your feet on the ground, or if you can put your hand on a tree or on something living, maybe it’s a flower, a piece of grass, an acorn in your hand a Crystal or a rock in your pocket… something from the earth…put a small stone that could fit in a bra or in a pocket and write a word with a sharpie.. Write the word “NOW” or “HERE” or “LOVE” or. Whatever word that reminds “why” or would help you remember that you’re in the present moment.
When the brain is triggered constantly… It’s sort of like a broken record or a truck tire that’s caught in a rut ,,, it’s hard to get out. The way to smooth the scratches on the record or get some traction under the tire or to heal a highly triggered mind is to give it space to heal. I post a lot on Facebook of sunrises and sunsets and baby ducks … I learned a long time ago that every second that I’m looking at something beautiful, I am not catastrophizing! Just like music… There is an event, a sound, a musical note… And then there is silence and then there is a note and then there is silence and then action, and in action …dance music is made!
That’s why meditation is such a big deal for victims, and war veterans etc. because meditation is that silence between the notes of life or the activity of life. I love meditation and have spent a lot of time and money learning the different techniques… I’m happy to share those tools with you. But for now, just closing your eyes and imagining something beautiful or better yet stepping outside into nature and looking at something beautiful will help calm the over-activity of a highly triggered mind.
There’s also a lot of shame around sex abuse and trafficking and I love Brené Brown’s three videos:
1. Ted Talk on shame
2. On vulnerability
3. The anatomy of Trust – a separate topic from being triggered but one that affects all of us survivors
I hope I haven’t absolutely overwhelmed you …hopefully I’ve been clear. If you have any questions need any clarification on anything please don’t hesitate to call I want to be a resource for you both.
Lastly I’d like to add that we have a retreat resource in Southern Maine, the executive director of the Ferry Beach Conference and Retreat Center, located in Saco Old Orchard Beach area. This spiritual retreat for thousands of people for decades, is looking for ways to be of service and to help heal our community around modern day slavery. Its really a spectacular place right on the beach! Maybe we can have a separate conversation about that. Check it out… Even if its a day trip with some conversation and a hike through the woods and time on the beach…
Please note I am multitasking as I write this. I am walking in the woods with four dogs and I am using the voice to text app on my phone to dictate this blog. Please forgive the multitude of grammar and syntax errors! It comes from my heart with loving intentions.
Catherine M Wilson, Survivor, Exec Director of Stop Trafficking ME