Tag Archives: trauma

Working with triggers

*this is about triggers, no triggering content*

A person who is triggered, experiences a devastating physical reaction to a situation. This does not mean feeling sad, or scared or a bit hurt, in the way people who like to downplay it will suggest. It’s about finding yourself reliving what happened to traumatise you, or re-feeling it in your body, or feeling the kinds of all consuming terror that go with your body thinking you are about to be back in that situation.

It’s not a thinking process, and as a consequence, it’s very hard to get in control of it, or slow it down, or pull yourself out of it.

I’ve discovered very recently that if I can recognise my response as triggering, I have just a tiny crack into which I can insert some leverage. Rather than getting caught up in the body response, and the horror of the body response, if I can notice the process, I can challenge it. The only way I’ve found to do this is to consciously and deliberately risk-assess the situation I am in, to see how real the threat is that I’m actually going into an awful and dangerous situation. There are patterns of behaviour that trigger me because in another context they would have been danger signs. However, in my current context, maybe those things aren’t as threatening as they seem.

It gives me room to bring conscious thought into play, and that puts me back in control.

One of the things underlying my panic, is the fear that the cause of historical mistreatment was me – that I acted in ways that encouraged, enabled, maybe even caused what happened. For a long time I believed it was what anyone would do, faced with someone like me. To break out of that, I’ve needed years in the company of people who do not see any aspect of who I am as a justification for mistreatment of any sort. I’ve started to trust that.

Which leads me to a very important point: I’ve got to the point of being able to unpick some of my triggers a bit, and I could not have done this alone. What it has taken to get me to this point is the love, kindness, patience, support, affection, generosity and welcoming good natures of a whole of lot of people.

I have said it before and I will say it again – individual mental health is not an individual issue, we do so much better when we take care of each other. Healing wounds to head and heart requires safe spaces and support, there’s just no other way. What’s going on here is a broken sense of trust, a broken relationship with other humans, caused by trauma. To heal, is to feel safe in the company of other humans, and to do that you need other humans who will help you feel safe. Profound thanks from me to everyone (and there are a lot of you) who have played a part in this journey. Some of you have walked through fire with me to get me to this point. I could not have done it without you.

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Victims, survivors and new stories

(No triggers, I think)

People who have been the victims of traumatic experiences tend to self-identify as ‘survivors’. It’s a pretty simple thing – ‘victim’ is a word that reinforces the feeling of being powerless and defenceless. ‘Survivor’ is a word with some strength in it, and a reminder that however awful it was, you got through. Not everyone survives of course, those of us who do, know that we were lucky.

Whether you see yourself as a victim or a survivor, those words can come to be the focal point of who you are. The story of what happened can become the biggest, most important story you have. I think in the short term this is necessary – it’s part of the processing of events, and reassembling your life and identity in the aftermath of whatever changed you. We can never go back. We can never be the person we were before *that* happened. What a survivor has to do, is figure out how to assimilate *that* into a sense of self that can move forward, and isn’t defined solely by the experience.

Traumatic experiences take over your thoughts. It’s part of what it means to be traumatised, that something you didn’t want is able to set up camp inside your own head and keep torturing you from in there. People who don’t manage to sort this out are more vulnerable to future trauma. What’s dangerous here is the way in which traumas can normalise themselves, inside a person’s head. It’s when we start to believe that the thing which happened is part of how the world works, that we have  reduced hope of getting free from it. If you can see it as a one off, an accident, bad luck, something that won’t happen again, the inside of your head is better protected.

Of course, with one off trauma experiences, it’s a good deal easier to recognise that it was a unique event, and you won’t have to face it again. What’s really hard is when you live with an ongoing trauma situation – people in war zones being the most obvious example. Trauma really does become normal in that kind of situation, and changing how you view the world is really hard when that happens.

It takes time to overcome things. It can take years to be something other than the person to whom a thing happened. For many survivors, that sense of self as survivor is always going to be there. With support, and opportunities, we may all have the scope to be more than the sum of our scars, but these are hard things to do quickly, or to do alone.

So if there’s a wounded person in your life, and you don’t understand why they’re still so caught up in the past, be gentle with them. It takes time. We all heal at our own rates, depending on experience, and subsequent support, and on who we are. That’s ok. How fast we may think a person should get over it is no measure of how long it will take.

If you want to help a person heal, one thing that you can do is spend time helping them affirm other parts of themselves. Help them remember other aspects of who they are, allow them space to try and be those aspects of who they used to be, and if that’s hesitant, just hold the space and let it be ok. Over time, small things can make really big differences.


Triggering and justice

I do not have any kind of formal PTSD diagnosis, although it’s been suggested a few times by people qualified to say, that it might be an issue for me. To get a diagnosis, I’ve have to show up and answer questions, and I have resisted this strenuously. This week really required me to look hard at what’s happening there.

I’ve just had a wholly different situation in which professional scrutiny was an option. It went fairly painlessly, and well on the day, but the level of anxiety, panic attacks and flashbacks beforehand were startling. I haven’t been like that over anything in a while. If you suffer from PTSD, then you will have triggers that give flashbacks and really bad reactions. I do seem to have these symptoms, and it would appear that professional scrutiny is a trigger for me. This makes it nigh on impossible to bear the prospect of asking for proper help.

How I might have got here is no great mystery. People who experience trauma and who are not helped are more vulnerable to being further traumatised. There is nothing worse for a trauma victim than being made to revisit the memories, but for several years, I was repeatedly forced into contact with professional people who demanded I did just that. Every new professional in the equation wanted a retelling of the worst things that have happened to me, so they could come to their own decision about whether or not I was telling the truth.

What that adds up to is ten different occasions when I had to talk in detail about traumatic experiences. There was also one hideous physical examination. Most of the professional people I had to deal with were not professionals when it came to dealing with my issues – they had other roles, and no training in how to minimise the damage for me. Several of them were disbelieving and hostile, putting me in situations of having to revisit trauma whilst being told off, blamed, humiliated and otherwise made to feel awful and responsible. Several were keen to minimise both the physical and psychological impact of what I’d experienced. Perhaps because they did not understand and were unable to imagine. The one additional round of talking to a professional who was in the mix just to help me – a counsellor – resulted in being taken seriously, but by then I was so damaged and demoralised by how I’d been treated by other professionals, that I found it difficult to make good use of her time.

In any compassionate situation, what happens to a trauma victim post-trauma is that support is given to make sure they do not carry a sense of blame or responsibility for what happened. This is key to recovery. However, we have an adversarial court system, and what I’ve been put through is the exact opposite. I had years of a process of being blamed, held accountable and told it was my fault and my failing, or that I was lying. The idea of professional scrutiny has become unbearable to me, and there is now no way I could now bear to submit to letting anyone try and help me with this.

What troubles me most about this is the certainty that it won’t just be me. All victims of crime are vulnerable to feelings of distress and trauma. Victims of violent and sexual crimes are likely to be traumatised by their experiences, and to need professional support to overcome this. What we have instead is this adversarial justice system that exposes victims to hostile questioning, requires them to repeat, in great detail the worst things that have happened to them, thus increasing the trauma, and where attempts to humiliate and discredit are pretty much a given. This is not justice. Even if you win, having to endure the process is not justice. Given our increasing levels of understanding about human psychology, this whole process needs a radical rethink. I do not have any answers, but I feel strongly that we need to be asking questions.


Soul retrieval

I’ve had a few review books about shamanism in the last few years. One of the concepts this has introduced me to, is of soul retrieval. When a person is deeply distressed by an event, a part of their soul can, in this perspective, be broken away and lost to them, which in turn will add to ill health, depression and so forth. One of the jobs of the shaman is to go and retrieve those lost pieces of self.

However, every book I’ve thus far read has suggested that we can heal ourselves and make the spirit journeys to pick up bits we are missing. The odds are your lost soul fragment will be at the place the trauma occurred, so you just spirit journey to there, and call it back, and reassure it, and bring it home. Easy! Umm.
The first thing to say here is that in genuine trauma situations, revisiting the memories is the worst thing you can suggest a person does. In cases of mild upset, revisiting will help resolve what happened, but do we really think mild upset causes loss of soul? Revisiting memories of trauma can readily cause traumatised people enormous suffering for no gain at all. Forgetting is often the best sort of healing for PTSD and encouragement to go back there is encouragement to go into hell and risk brining that hell back into your life. I worry about this advice, and what people are being encouraged to do.

Battered, lost, with my sense of self in tatters and my life in pieces, I did try some of this, in desperation and because I was told it was doable and a good idea. I won’t make any claims at all for my skills in journeying and I am no kind of shaman. I was entirely unable to help myself in any way by this means, and the revisiting of sites of old wounding did me more harm than good. It may be that someone who knows how to do the work could do that for me, but I cannot do it for myself.

However, what the last few years have also taught me, is that there are other ways to bring back my lost sense of self and put myself back together. Places of safety, laughter, love and friendship do far more to heal those wounds and tackle the feeling of loss than classic ‘soul retrieval’ work ever did. In remembering who and how I used to be, and seeking out the places of good memory, I have managed to re-find a lot of missing pieces. People who have been important parts of my life historically, and people who’ve come into my life more recently in good ways give me moments when I can quite honestly feel myself healing, growing over the holes, putting back together. Some of those have been really unexpected.

Whether you rationalise this as psychological process or want to think in terms of magic and soul doesn’t entirely matter. There is a process, and for me it has been a very clear one. Going back to the places of wounding just opens those wounds a bit further, feeding my feelings of loss, distress and anguish. Going to the places that are good for me, that feed my soul and remind me of who I am, and connecting with the people who allow and enable me to be something that feels like an actual me, not a fake, or a product of damage – that works.

We are far too quick to ascribe to ourselves titles that should represent years of deep and dedicated study. We are far too quick to tell each other that, once you’ve read this one small book, you can do all the work of the traditional witch, shaman, wise-woman… it is a dangerous line of thought to adopt, especially in face of any serious issue or wounding. When we are down and vulnerable, being told how to magically fix that is so tempting, and it is so easy not to question the wisdom of it, but it can be a costly mistake to make. It is the person being told they can do the shaman’s work for themselves, with no proper support from anyone, who is most at risk. This troubles me.

I wish that more writers of New Age handbooks took the time to find out about the impact of trauma and poor mental health. I suspect really these books are written for and by people for whom getting a bit upset is the greatest trauma they have known. We all measure pain by our experiences of it, but if life is safe, easy and brings little more than angst, it is not difficult both to treat that as far more serious than it is, so go and play at soul-retrieval, feel better and tell other people to do the same. It is not, I think, what the practice of soul retrieval was originally intended for.


Living with fear

One-off traumas are awful to experience, but generally, if it seems like a singular event, people get over it fairly well. It’s the experience of living with fear, and having the unthinkable become normal that does the longer term damage. This is what underpins shell shock, as experienced by soldiers. Post traumatic stress disorder is just as likely for civilians after wars. However, being crippled by fear is not an experience unique to this level of hostile experience. People who experience much lower levels of bullying, abuse, persecution or difficulty over a long period can end up just as scarred. It’s not a very well understood problem, nor is it much talked about outside support groups for the afflicted.

People coming out of long term bullying, or abuse can be just as psychologically damaged as people coming out of war zones and can display all the same kinds of symptoms as shell shock. This is not because victims of these apparently lesser problems are somehow being weak or pathetic. This is a biological process that has everything to do with how fear acts on the body. It is a very bodily condition. Once you can get your head in on the process, you’re actually moving towards healing. Prolonged fear causes physical sickness and needs treating more like an ailment of the body and less like some kind of character failing.
There are a number of things that can happen to a person. If you are constantly victimised and nothing you do will protect you, you will come to believe that the whole world is hostile and threatening. You may be unable to respond to even mild setbacks, and feel overwhelming despair in face of even the smallest problems. You may build fear associations such that leaving the house becomes unbearable. For me, it was postmen. I still break into a cold sweat if I see a postman, or post van. I know why, but that doesn’t stop me. When you have lost power and control in your life, the idea of being able to solve problems, or being able to cope barely exists in your head. Each new scenario is there to punish you further, to take you apart, to kick you again. The loss of hope is a consequence of living with fear.

You may develop superstitious beliefs about actions or behaviours that will keep you safe. This can lead to obsessive and compulsive disorders. People only feel safe when they have performed rituals that, from the outside, look crazy and irrelevant. The desire to be safe may also lead to passivity, acquiescence. The abused woman may make no sound when she is beaten if acknowledging pain makes it worse. She may become unable to vocalise any kind of pain at all. The abused child may learn to do anything at all to please adults, in the hopes of avoiding further torment and thus become even more vulnerable.

Once your body has learned fear as normality, things go a bit crazy. The fear responses happen when there’s almost nothing to trigger them. That can mean heart racing, stomach heaving panic attacks that leaving you weeping and fighting for breath, and not even knowing why. The experience of this kind of bodily panic suggests that there must be something terrible going on, you just don’t know what it is yet. When terrible has become normal, that’s not irrational at all.

There was a cure for shell shock. All you had to do was get the soldiers out of the war zone, give them total rest and tranquillity, gentle physical activity and time outdoors. With peace and the right support, many would heal. The only way to break the cycles of physical terror, is to bodily remove the sufferer from the source of their fear, support them to feel safe, keep their environment unthreatening and gradually rebuild their sense of what ‘normal’ ought to look like.

This is one of the reasons why those apparently lesser forms of harm can turn out to be the most damaging. Short of going into a hospital, your chances of getting a few gentle, stress free weeks in order to heal are slim. The longer you are trapped in a fearful situation, the more normal it becomes. A few weeks might enable you to recover from a few months in a war zone, but what if you’ve been a victim for a decade? Making a new ‘normal’ so that you are not afraid all the time, is not going to be so quick. A good doctor can do a lot to help a person, but a careless one may feed paranoia and reinforce feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Add in the social stigma of mental illness, the fear of having your children taken away, or losing your job, and the fear itself becomes self perpetuating.

Fear does not always show on the outside. Panic attacks, and expressions of a terror that is rooted in your body like a parasitic plant, are humiliating. Most sufferers go to a lot of effort to hide it.
What would you do if you saw someone succumb to what appeared to be irrational panic? Tell them to pull themselves together? Mock them? Pity them? Avoid them? And if it happened to you, who could you go to for support? Who could you tell? Who would hold your hand and help you rebuild your life?

There but for the grace of… what? Go any of us. The going is easy and there are plenty of people who will happily take you there. The coming back is very, very hard.


Life without skin

I think early on I was fairly normal in terms of my ability to handle tragedy. That changed when I became pregnant. All capacity to distance myself from the grief and pain of others left me. From then on, news items frequently brought tears to my eyes. This last year has further intensified it, hence the blog title. Sometimes it feels like I am going through the world with no skin on.

There are plenty of jobs in which ‘professional distance’ is required, and which become impossible if you empathise too much. I knew a nurse who was unable to tune out the suffering of wounded soldiers in her care, and who was coming close to being traumatised as a consequence. What does it say about the state of things if the only way to survive in an ostensibly caring profession, is by not caring too much?

Unlike even our relatively recent ancestors, we have the woes of the world delivered to us by international media. There’s probably no more woe out there than there has ever been – and in terms of life experience, many of us get an easier ride than they might have done a hundred years ago and more. Most of us don’t see violent death first hand, much less see it frequently. So maybe we’re encountering the idea of it a disproportionate amount even as we encounter the reality less frequently.

To be honest, I have no idea how much skin I *ought* to have. I feel everything all too keenly, and there are times when it would be useful to be moved less easily. But at the same time, this often painful awareness of other people’s distress is a constant spur, and makes it very hard for me to be complacent, or disinterested. Maybe that’s a good thing.

What prompted the blog is this. Yesterday, like many people, I heard about the four trapped miners. When news came through of the first body found, I was almost in tears. My grief was less for the dead, more for the families waiting and not knowing, for the heartbreak and the devastation to their lives. This kind of high profile tragedy always attracts empathy, but the odds are in the weeks, and probably months to come I’ll still be wondering how those people are doing, and what I would have done.

I remember when Princess Diana died, and there was a tremendous public outpouring of grief over her passing. Commentators remarked at the time that it seemed disproportionate, as though people were finding it an opportunity to vent private grief. Interestingly, my counsellor has been saying similar things – the undealt with pain can leak out in response to other things – sad films, and the distant stories of other people’s grief. The things we cannot weep over in our own lives are only expressed when something distant but hugely emotive reaches out to touch us.

Perhaps I am weeping for everyone else because I was not able to weep for my own wounds when I needed to. Perhaps there will come a time when the soul skin re-grows and I’m not so naked, not so vulnerable to every source of distress that comes to me through the media. Or perhaps not. I don’t know how I could honourably meet the world without breaking my heart. I’m not at all sure I want to go back to being able to hold my distance and tune things out. I wonder if my Druidry will require me to keep going through life like this, desperately raw and unable to protect myself on certain levels. Then I find myself asking what such a painful degree of awareness is for, and I know that in trying to answer the question, I’ll be beginning a whole new quest.