Tag Archives: triggers

Facing a trigger

There is a world of difference between causing anxiety, and triggering. Anxiety is unpleasant, no two ways about it, but a trigger will give a person a flashback to a situation of trauma. It is possible to tackle anxiety by facing up to the sources of fear – and of course the less well founded the fear is, the more effective this is. Sometimes we end up scared of things for no good reason and we have to retrain ourselves to deal with stuff. I’ve done some of this along the way, I’ve found CBT approaches really useful.

The worst thing to do to someone who suffers PTSD is to make them revisit the trauma. Untreated trauma, and trauma revisited can build up layers of additional triggers and problems. Been there too. I don’t have a PTSD diagnosis because the doctor I was seeing when that would have been most useful didn’t want to send me for tests – not because he thought there was no issue, he just didn’t want to send me for tests, and I didn’t have the energy to fight him. Every single professional person I encountered over a period of years – doctors, police, solicitors, social workers and the like, every last one of them required me to retell what had happened. That’s a lot of deep retriggering, often in situations where being distressed put me at a significant disadvantage. I have no idea if being able to name a diagnosis would have helped.

Triggering happens because something is too associated with the original trauma, and brings it all back. This is why trigger warnings matter – on obvious things like child abuse, torture, extreme cruelty and rape it is worth warning people because anyone who has experienced that will suffer enormously if they come upon it unprepared. This isn’t like pushing past fear of going outside to go outside – because in that example, you go outside and you probably don’t face a terrible thing. Being triggered means facing a terrible thing. So on the whole, facing down a trigger is not the ideal way to deal with it.

The further removed the trigger is from the trauma, the more chance you have of taking it out. You need to stack up a lot of time feeling safe and secure first. There is no real scope for dealing with triggers while you’re still in a dangerous situation. I’ve written before about how I have overcome being panicked by post. I’ve got that down to just a bit anxious, now. The reason I had become so panicked by post, was that terrifying things came in envelopes for some years. Many of those terrifying things came from my solicitors, and every envelope represented a bill that would cripple me financially for good measure. Between this and the deliberate retriggering described above, I’ve been totally unable to deal with most people in a professional capacity for some years now.

Yesterday I went to see a solicitor about making a will. The same family solicitors company responsible for all that letter sending. I let a professional person ask questions about my life. But, because it was a will, we didn’t get into the stuff I never want to have to talk about again. And I knew upfront what it would cost. The appointment letter, when it came in the post, made me feel bodily sick, but I weathered it. I’ve kept reminding myself that I’m in charge of this process. Perhaps next year I will find the means to go and talk to a doctor – and it will be a different doctor – about things that are wrong with me.

It has taken me years to get to the point where I feel like I can do this. Years of kindness and support on the domestic front. Years of rebuilding my sense of self. It is possible to challenge a trigger, but it is not something to rush towards. Only the person dealing with the trigger can say when it might be worth having a go.

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Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.


In the aftermath of anxiety

A panic attack can be a rather self announcing thing. It has inherent drama, so it can be possible for people not experiencing the panic to tell that something is going on. However, the aftermath of a panic attack is also a difficult time, and it is far harder to see what’s going on then, so I thought it might be a useful thing for me to talk about.

The physical symptoms can persist. Raised heart rate, tight chest, difficulty breathing – these things can go on for hours, even days after a big panic attack. It feels awful and can lead to the fear that something has gone wrong at a bodily level. I’ve never been clear how you’re supposed to tell between panic and heart attack warning signs. Those of us who suffer panic are told to ignore what others are told to take seriously.

There can be a huge emotional backlash. It invariably leaves me feeling like I’m stupid, irrational and I’m embarrassed by my loss of control. I hate not being able to control what I’m doing. I get anxious that people will not take me seriously, or will think it’s a stunt, a bid for attention, an attempt at emotional blackmail. Often as a consequence I will become withdrawn afterwards, especially when I don’t know how people are responding to me.

Once panic has been triggered, it is easier to re-panic me. This can lead to incredibly vicious cycles where it gets ever harder to stop panicking. Without calm and respite, panic can get seriously out of control.

Exhaustion is a common part of the backlash. Emotional and bodily exhaustion can be severe and can last for days. The desire to just down tools and go to bed is huge. When things are really bad, a massive panic attack can result in the no energy, not coping outcome of a big round of depression.

If you are dealing with a person who suffers from panic, then the best way to find out how to help them is to ask. On the whole, taking people seriously and treating them kindly makes a lot of odds. However, as panic is often related to abuse experiences, make sure that what you do to help doesn’t seem controlling, doesn’t give the sufferer the feeling that they are so useless they can’t take care of themselves, doesn’t patronise or demean them. Those of us who are ok with being touched can be significantly soothed through long hugs, but never hug without asking. Unsolicited body contact can be a panic trigger. Bring drinks, reduce noise, remove threats, talk calmly, give space and time.

Triggers are tricky things. Someone else’s triggers may make no sense to you, and you may feel that the time it takes them to recover is unreasonable. This is because it isn’t your trigger, or your history, or your body, and it is important to bear that in mind when dealing with someone in distress.


A bit worried or suffering anxiety?

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.


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.


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.