Content warning for the kinds of things that create triggers in the first place. Nothing in great detail.
The kind of triggering that is best known is where something occurring in the present connects with a past trauma in the mind of a person and throws them into flashbacks. The classic example is of a loud noise – like a firework – throwing someone back into the traumatic experience of being in a war zone.
Complex triggering is by its very nature, far more complicated. It’s also a lot harder to spot. People suffering more straightforward triggering can often identify their triggers and know what they struggle with. Obvious examples would be scenes of rape, violence or torture in films. When the triggers and traumas are less about specific events and more about life experiences over longer periods of time, both the process of being triggered and the consequences are really different.
I had some of the simpler forms of PTSD in relation to some very specific events. At this point I’ve managed to get in control of them, and I don’t have that kind of flashback any more. It takes work, but it is entirely possible to get on top of things.
The complex triggers don’t take me back to specific events, more into emotional states that bring in, as invasive thoughts, anything that chimes with how I’m feeling. To a certain degree this is normal – our memories naturally bring up past events that connect with however we’re feeling. When you are sad, you are probably going to remember other times when you were sad. However, if what’s in your history is abandonment, years of being humiliated, physical violence, relentless experiences that crushed your confidence and took away your self esteem, and the like, then triggering opens you to a flood of that.
It can feel like drowning. An overwhelming torrent of awful feeling and memory, all turning up once in a vivid and present way, much like the other sort of flashback. Layer upon layer of it, bringing panic and despair in its wake. This may well have the effect of making whatever triggered you seem far, far worse than it is, or leaving you unable to think about whether this current round is as bad – which of course it could be. For people living in traumatic circumstances, the weight of triggering while you’re also dealing with something traumatic in the present is also an issue.
Normally when people talk about triggering, the assumption is that the current event is really not that big a deal and is only an issue because of the past event. If someone is screaming abuse at you, and that’s triggering flashbacks of all the other times you’ve been terrified and humiliated, there’s nothing you can do in the present to make that situation ok. The effect is to make it harder to deal with current trauma, harder to get out or to recognise that it isn’t your fault. Many domestic abuse victims have a hard time figuring out how to leave and I suspect this is a significant contributing factor.
As yet I haven’t run into any substantial information about how to handle more complex triggering. It seems to be an area of mental health that’s only just starting to be recognised and given proper attention. All I know for certain at this point is that if you aren’t currently in a dangerous situation and you can spot what’s happening, it gets easier to handle. It’s still desperately hard though.
(I’m ok today, before anyone worries. I wrote this post on a day when I was experiencing these things, but I’m not there right now.)