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What to do when triggered and why the answer may surprise you

“The only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid unavoidable pain.” ~ Pete Walker, The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness out of Blame

When it comes to complex developmental trauma, triggers activate emotional flashbacks.


Emotional flashback is a term coined by the author of the book "Complex PTSD: from surviving to thriving", Pete Walker. Pete Walker defines emotional flashbacks as "sudden and often prolonged regressions ('amygdala hijackings') to the frightening circumstances of childhood." He goes on to say that "because most emotional flashbacks do not have a visual or memory component to them, the triggered individual rarely realizes that she is re-experiencing a traumatic time from childhood" and further adds, "without help in the moment, the client typically remains lost in the flashback and has no recourse but to once again fruitlessly reenact his own particular array of primitive, self-injuring defenses to what feel like unmanageable feelings."


A trigger is something that causes a survivor to experience a sudden and intense flood of sensations that, much like the original injury, end up overwhelming their nervous system. While the trigger causes the emotional flashback to occur, it is not the trigger itself, but the emotional flashback, that devastate a person. Without the presence of the emotional flashback that it causes, the trigger itself is a neutral event.


In my practice, I teach individuals to see triggers and flashbacks as two separate issues. We have much less control over our triggers then we can learn to have over our flashbacks.


Developing greater control over the impact of flashbacks and eventually over the flashbacks themselves is a gradual journey that may span years for some people. Nevertheless, the effort and focus dedicated to strengthening this skill are invaluable, as they ultimately empower the individual to feel more resilient and competent over time.


 

“Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”~Serenity prayer


No matter how much we try, we will never have full control over triggers. However, with practice, we can have more command over the experience of emotional flashbacks.


Managing external triggers has only limited success. Survivors might have control over some aspects of their environment. They might be able to eliminate, for example, coming in contact with something or someone that they know would increase the likelihood of experiencing a flashback. However, for survivors of complex trauma, the triggers are frequently mysterious and difficult to detect, leaving them even more on edge and in need of being hyper-vigilant of their environments.


Focusing solely on managing (trying to control or influence) triggers, unless done mindfully and with realistic expectations, can become in and of itself, an overwhelming fixation, leaving one feeling preoccupied with trying to control something they have very limited control of.


 

FLASHBACK (AFTER)CARE: A NEW PATH


When a person directs their energy to caring for themselves during and after a flashback, their sense of confidence and psychological solidity increases, leading them to gradually feel more comfortable being in the world without the need to manage it.


In turn, the person is gradually led out of the survival. They feel more grounded, their relationships feel safer and the world at large becomes a more enjoyable and engaging place to be.


Practical way of caring for yourself during and after a flashback:


Recognize that you're having a flashback: This comes straight from the Pete Walker's work. Understanding that a flashback represents an internal feeling of insecurity rather than evidence of actual external threat can help diffuse the preoccupation on external concerns and lessen the urgency and intensity of the internal response.


Engage with the Body: Flashbacks can be powerful in their intensity. When experiencing a flashback, an individual's past literally slams into their present, colliding with such force, it knocks the person off their feet and off their center.  It's as if the person's past crashes their present, leading to disorientation and a loss of control.


The ability to register that one is experiencing a flashback will not automatically lead the person to feel grounded. To help the body get there, I use a technique I call "pen to paper." Writing helps engage areas of the brain that are much more capable of being mindful. Mindfulness in turn is what encourages our ability to come back into the here and now.

Flashbacks bring up feelings of fear, rage and shame. If a person is stuck in a flashback, they simply cycle through and perseverate on the painful feeling they're having. Without a reliable exit stragety, the person can get stuck in a flashback, which will further intensify their anxiety about experiencing them in the future. To provide flashback care, we need to be ready to assist the body in transitioning from a triggered state to a calmer and safer present state to promote healing.


In the "pen to paper" exercice, idenfiy a feeling (let's say you're aware of feeling upset) and ask yourself, what is upsetting to me about this, then write down the answers. This practice helps the body to start navigating through the distressing sensation instead of being trapped in it, by providing it with attention and the expressive outlets.


Soothe the Body: When data that enters from the outside is too much for the person to process (as in the case with external triggers), the flooded autonomic nervous system (the body) overwhelms and overrides the prefrontal cortex (the thinking assessing brain), a region of our brain which is much slower and requires much more energy to function well. When triggered, the body requires a swift response to address the threat, resulting in the amygdala and the hypothalamus, which are quicker and more instinctive brain regions, taking charge of the threat response mechanism. Consequently, the entire system accelerates when activated, enabling the brain regions that respond reflexively- rather than thoughtfully- lead the way.  The presence of emotional flashback means that the "threat" actually comes from the internal state of activation rather than the external life-threatening danger.


Slowing down helps re-engage the prefrontal cortex, allowing us to do better at assessing the situation more accurately and responding more thoughtfully. Breathing exercises, progressive relaxation exercises, somatic experiencing practice like pendulation and others, can all help encourage the kind of slowing down that can move a person out of an acute state of activation.


Care for the Body: Your body is exhausted physiologically and emotionally after experiencing a flashback. To sustain a powerful collision of the painful past and the unsuspecting present requires massive amounts of strength and energy. The flashback aftercare has to include simple, but nourishing ways to nurture your body. I playfully say to my clients, that if we could just go out and roll in the warm mud to center ourselves after going through something as demanding as having a flashback, we should all do it. What I really mean by that is that a body that has just been through a flashback needs something very simple and down to earth (sometimes literally) to recover. A tasty warm drink, a simple nutritious snack, a bath or a shower are all good ways to continue caring for the body. Other examples could be taking a nap, walking in nature, or gentle movement, such as non-linear movement or stretching


*To learn about Pete Walker's work in the field of understanding complex early childhood trauma (i.e. attachment trauma, developmental trauma, relational trauma), please visit his site. In the meantime, here's "13 ways of managing flashbacks", an article from Pete Walker's website.


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