A bit back I wrote about the differences between depression and sadness and the problems that arise when people think that their brushes with melancholy mean they know what depression is. You can read that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/depressed-or-melancholy/
The issues for anxiety are similar in that an experience of fear is not the same as anxiety as a condition. Humans have fight and flight reflexes, but in the anxious person, the urge to flight can be overwhelming and irresistible. A panic attack is a really physical experience. How it impacts may depend on the severity of the situation for the person experiencing it. It may cause numbness and temporary inability to move or react. It may accelerate the heart rate in ways that are also alarming. Breathing can be affected – loss of control of breath as the body hyperventilates is also distressing. Chest pains as though you were having a heart attack. Gut pains leading to voiding of the bowels. A panic attack is a body issue, and all the person experiencing it can do is try to get it under control. It can also impact on a person’s ability to go out, deal with other people, hold down a job – any aspect of life may be made more difficult by it.
You can help someone who is experiencing a panic attack by helping them to feel safe, asking what they need. Little things – a glass of water, a seat, help to move away from the trigger… these are good. Telling the panicking person to get over it, pull themselves together, stop making a fuss it really isn’t that big a deal… will make it worse. If you have an option on doing those things, don’t assume everyone else does.
This brings me round to triggering – a word too often used to indicate mild discomfort. Specifically a word used to indicate mild discomfort by people who don’t have issues and wish to ridicule and denigrate those who do. Triggers do not mean you are some kind of pathetic. Triggers are a consequence of trauma and the experience of the trigger – typically something that in the sufferer’s mind connects to the trauma – take the sufferer back to the experience of their trauma in an immediate, uncontrollable way. The shell shocked soldier will have flashbacks in response to sudden loud noises. Victims of rape and other physical abuse, victims of torture and anyone coming out of a war zone, and people coming out of long term domestic abuse are the kinds of people who have triggers. You can’t see by looking and many of us are not self announcing because one of the worst things to do with trauma is revisit the memories of it.
This is why trigger warnings are so useful, because they allow a person chance to brace themselves, and a reminder you were prepared for is much easier to handle than one that comes unexpectedly, and you get the choice of whether you’re feeling up to it right now. Trigger warnings are not about protecting wimps from reality as is so often claimed. Trigger warnings are about protecting victims of child abuse, torture, rape and violence from reminders that may send their minds back into living those experiences again. It tends to require details – which is why I’ve not put trigger warnings on this blog, for example. If I was talking in detail about specific experience, I would start with a trigger warning.
Untreated anxiety has the habit of infecting other aspects of your life – the process is called conditioning, we’ve known about it for more than a hundred years. If a bell rings when you feed a dog, the sound of the bell ringing will eventually be enough to make the dog salivate. If there was a soundtrack to your abuse, or certain key phrases were signs of danger, if there was a behaviour pattern that went ahead of violence in your home, then things that look like it will start to feel dangerous too. It won’t make sense to anyone else, it’s not the sort of thing anyone expects to get trigger warnings about, but it still needs taking seriously.
If someone tells you that what you do is triggering them, they are in an awful place and trust you enough to ask you to do differently. That’s a lot of trust. They could have just run away. The gift of helping someone feel that bit safer is a huge one, and helps with recovering from the trauma. Failure to take seriously the apparently irrational triggers can contribute to making things worse. Triggers are so easy to dismiss if you aren’t the one experiencing them.