"The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
The damned thing in the cave that was
so dreaded has become the center."
I do believe that some of the most amazing gifts in life come packaged in really off-putting wrapping paper. So off-putting, in fact, it stops us cold and turns us off to the entire thing. Such, in my opinion, is the nature of the psychological triggers. It is incredibly hard to see beyond the wreckage caused by a trigger. The immediate impact of a trigger is often so destabilizing, the only thing one can think of in its wake is "how do I put things back together?"
While the impulse is to get back to the way things were, the radical thing is to feel into the invitation to embrace the new...and to keep venturing into the cave.
First, it is valuable to remember that it is possible to go beyond just surviving a trigger. There are deeper, more rewarding layers beneath the initial recovery, but the effective recovery itself is hard to achieve without the proper skill set. This article offers the tools that make the journeying through and beyond that initial recovery layer safer and more possible. Over the years in practice, I have found that some tools work better and more efficiently than others. What I offer you here is the summary of some of those tools as well as the reasoning behind them.
The affects of a trigger are sudden and overpowering. They can bring us to our knees in an instant by completely hijacking our nervous systems and our worldview, leaving us feeling disoriented by the onslaught of debilitating fear and murderous rage.
It is mighty hard to stay present enough in the face of a trigger to get past the ugly wrapping paper so to speak. The damage is often so great, one becomes stuck picking up the pieces and trying to put them back together.
Triggers shake us up and, in doing so, they break down the thick layers of our defenses, granting us direct access to parts of ourselves that are deeply hurt and need healing.
In other words, triggers have an unprecedented ability
to lead us right to THE MEDICINE we need the most.
When triggered, the protective systems become compromised and, with that, there could be an experience of being broken wide open. The question is how to REMAIN PRESENT ENOUGH in the face of this often overwhelming opening so that the important healing needed can be facilitated?
LET'S BEGIN WITH WHY STAYING PRESENT IN THE FACE OF A TRIGGER IS SO DARN CHALLENGING?
-When a trigger occurs in real time, it often leads the person triggered to believe that he/she is profoundly unsafe NOW, which creates the sensations of panic and dis-ease (some people literally get sick). Without much prior training on how to remain present and embodied in the face of a trigger, the immediacy of such overpowering sensations often makes it impossible to accurately assess the situation at hand for what it is and what it is not.
-Trigger, in the absence of prior trauma, is not even technically a trigger; it is an irritant and a source of frustration or annoyance. Trigger, which touches and disturbs an OLD WOUND, is a very different story. Dr. Mario Martinez, who has taught and written extensively on the topics of health and wellness in cultural contexts, describes three primary archetypal wounds- SHAME, ABANDONMENT and BETRAYAL. Because these wounds almost always originate in childhood, when triggered in the present, a much younger child part of ourselves relives the original violation and subsequently becomes flooded with the original terror and rage. Exposed to such degrees of terror and rage can be quite disorienting to an adult. Moreover, without timely and effective intervention, it is possible for an adult to become traumatized by the prolonged exposure to the vivid and relentless experiences of the younger traumatized part.
-When triggered, adults can become completely taken over by the feelings of the younger wounded child inside. When that happens, they often lose the perspective of themselves as capable agents, which makes the child inside feel quite helpless and unprotected. In the Internal Family Systems model, this process is called "blending." "Blending" occurs when a person fuses (or blends) with the experience of a part of themselves (a wounded child, for example) so much so, they cannot feel anything else. In fact, what often happens in this case is that the person begins to interpret the events and circumstances in his or her life exclusively from the lens of the part they are "blended" with.
-To avoid being triggered, it is not uncommon for many adults who have survived painful violations as children, to try and hide their wounds. Many adults carry significant shame in relation to their wounds and many stay emotionally disconnected from their painful histories. Because of that, many do not talk to their partners, for example, about their wounded places, which predisposes them to being triggered even more.
LET'S TALK NOW ABOUT WAYS TO STAY PRESENT AFTER A TRIGGER HAS OCCURRED.
First of all, WHY IS IT EVEN IMPORTANT?
Well, the more you are in your body after a trigger has occurred, the less fragmented you are going to be and the quicker you can actually catch the potential for that fragmentation (both are good things!). Furthermore, the more present you are, the more likely you are to tend to the wounded child part in you in a way that offers it real support and protection.
Remember, when the child part gets a reminder of the original violation, it gets flooded with overwhelming terror and it NEEDS A PRESENT and NURTURING PARENT/CAREGIVER to protect it. To do all that, YOU ACTUALLY NEED YOUR CAPABLE and PRESENT ADULT SELF on board as much as possible. If you are completely fragmented (i.e. taken apart by a trigger), your child self is terrified and panicky without anyone to protect it.
You being present for your younger hurt self is the REAL DEAL MEDICINE.
Before I begin talking about the specific skills, I'd like to note that the primary purpose of the steps listed below is to effectively RETURN the person triggered INTO THE PRESENT TIME and INTO THEIR PRESENT BODY. If a trigger yanks the person out of their present and into their painful past, the aim of the tools I give here is to RESTORE the person to their present SELF, so that the present self can make better choices on behalf of the little one that is hurting and needs protection.
NOW, WHAT ARE THE TOOLS FOR STAYING PRESENT?
1. What I am afraid would happen to me HAS ACTUALLY ALREADY HAPPENED.
Sometimes the most helpful and effective tool for staying present is a shift in perspective. In his 1970 essay "The Fear of Breakdown", English psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott wrote: "I can now state my main contention, and it turns out to be very simple. I contend that clinical fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced." Intense and overpowering fear-based states lead our bodies to employ primitive, more reactive strategies for survival. The terror of the traumatized child part inside communicates "I am being violated now and I will keep on being hurt because no one will come to protect me." When a triggered adult becomes stuck inside such terror, he or she can provide very little, if any, effective soothing to the child part inside.
Let me demonstrate now how making the aforementioned shift might help a person who is triggered move through that scary place with more presence.
A client of mine shared during a recent session that she often found herself in relationships (romantic and otherwise) where she was "overpowered" by others whose needs she deemed to be "more important." My client stated that her needs, as the result, were largely undermined. When I asked my client what that was like for her, she began to cry. Eventually she stated that in such relationships she felt invisible and unimportant. As we explored further, she said she feared that she would always be let down and would never be taken care of in relationships, adding, "I feel like I will never have a mother." Upon making this statement, my client, a 49-year-old woman, began to shut down. As a child she grew up in abusive environments and was treated harshly by many adults, including her own mother. She was now reliving the terrible abandonment in real time and, in doing so, she was beginning to feel more and more paralyzed (she stopped crying, began to have difficulty breathing, appeared motionless). When I saw that, I invited my client to say instead, "I feel like I have never had a mother" (see, the shift was to realize that what she was so afraid of has actually ALREADY HAPPENED to her). As my client repeated the statement, I saw a visible change in her body as she exhaled deeply and began to sob. As an adult she was never able to grieve the loss of the mother she'd never had because she was living in constant fear of the loss occurring in the future.
2. A PART of me is panicking/terrified/anxious, NOT THE ENTIRE ME.
When triggered, "un-blending" is a technique that can help bring the level of distress way down. One way to "un-blend" is to realize that A PART of you is activated by a trigger, NOT the entire you. Some of my clients now practice this kind of self-talk when triggered or distressed. For example, a client of mine who tends to feel a sense of dread when entering social settings, would now often remind himself that A PART of him is panicking because of his very specific trauma history. Saying this helps my client stay present to the fact that many other parts of him do not seem fazed by being in social settings at all.
3. Integrating painful history IS LIBERATING.
Finally, ignoring, avoiding or hiding the wounds is the exercise in futility. When the wounded parts of us are in exile, they DO NOT STOP HURTING. In fact, they feel even more afraid. It is important to become familiar with your trauma history and to take your wounds seriously. Wounds are nothing to be ashamed of. They are not badges of your badness or unworthiness. The more integrated you are around your painful history, they less likely you are to be completely overtaken by a trigger.
4. Learn to make friends with YOUR BODY.
When we talk about healing from trauma-or staying present in the face of a trigger- engaging the intellect alone around some of the solutions is not sufficient. When we talk about PRESENCE, we might as well be talking about the body. Or, more precisely, BEING IN THE BODY. This last tool might as well be the first tool because in many ways becoming more embodied makes all the other tools so much more easier to utilize.
Trauma creates all kinds of disconnects in the body, it fragments and it distorts, so it is ESSENTIAL that one learns to inhabit his/her/their body SAFELY in order for the healing to truly set in. Embodiment might begin with small steps, such as paying attention and listening to how the body responds to the ordinary and the benign in the environment. Starting with something that carries less intensity and less charge can create significant changes in one's sensitivity and the ability to observe the distinctions in the body.
Being triggered is a human phenomenon. It is not an indication that something is wrong with you or that you are broken in any way. Staying present after a trigger has occurred requires a particular set of SKILLS, which means being present can be LEARNED.
With every trigger, there is an opportunity to be there for your little one inside, which is always an EXCEPTIONALLY POWERFUL MEDICINE.
*As always, if you found information in this article helpful to you, consider sharing it with others.
Until next time, be well!