1. Triggers educate us about our body memory.
When we are abused children, as our bodies are developing, the abuse creates body memories which follow us into adulthood. If we constantly held our breath in fear as kids, we would automatically hold our breath as adults. If we were constantly clenched in expectation of abuse, our muscle memory becomes a state of consistent clenching, resulting in body pain. If we immediately dissociated when danger was near, our minds were trained to react only this way. By the time we reach adulthood, our body has essentially been trained only in trauma responses.
When a painful memory is coming to the surface, I am able to identify it based on what happens with my body signals which include headaches, nausea, nightmares, shortness of breath, floating in the head, chest heaviness, a rise in nerve pain and/or fibromyalgia. Before I understood how triggers and body memory connect, I constantly thought I was sick. I wasn’t looking at my memories yet.
I began to write my memoir, “Cult Child” and soon found that something incredible was processing in my body. I began to document what happened to me physically during flashbacks, the processing of those flashbacks, how long the symptoms lasted and anything else that I felt was associated with the flashback or night terror. This process of handwriting these moments allowed me to truly break down slowly, the emotions that were manifesting as body memories. I documented many of my night terrors on my personal website. Being able to re-read them allowed me to step outside of the memory and analyze it from a more scientific view, separating my current reality from the memory.
“After all,” I would constantly remind myself, “these are just memories. They cannot kill me. They can cause sadness, tears, headaches, flues, but one thing I know to be true. They will not end my life.”
2. Triggers require us to look into our childhood to connect the trigger.
There is no way for us to work through triggers until we find that strand and travel it to the connection of our childhood trauma. For instance, I cannot stand the smell of curry. I get nauseous and have to get away from it, or I feel I will vomit. For years, I could not understand why I had such a horrid aversion to this smell until I came to understand that I was molested by a man who visited our cult compound from India and had that smell on his body. Another trigger I had was with Irish Spring soap. It would also make me sick if I smelled it. The first man who sexually abused me washed himself with Irish Spring. I could go on and on with the examples of these connections.
The key I found to riding this memory strand is to travel it backwards. If something triggers me, meaning I have recognized the symptoms, I go straight into dissection mode. I write down my body signals. By the way, one will never find me without a writing utensil and some kind of notebook no matter where I am. Once I write down the body signals, I sit with them. Understanding that everything is recorded into our memory bank, 9/10 my body will tell me what it is connected with. If I cannot connect it, I allow it to rest.
We trauma survivors tend to avoid triggers because the body signals mimic the side effects of the abuse. When we can be cognitively aware to remind ourselves that these are simply body memories; that we are not being abused now; we can go into self-care mode immediately. Read on!
3. Triggers cause us to fine tune our grounding skills.
In order to process our trauma, we have to create grounding tools. The reason is that brain dissociation is an easy place to go when diving back into our trauma. Times in public where I can be apt to feel anxiety are when I have to stand in lines, if I’m forced to be in a crowd, if there is audio disturbance around me, Here are some ways that I stay grounded:
· I keep an anxiety fidget box on me. Check them out here! They are inexpensive. They keep your hand busy in a line or a crowd. It gives you something to focus on and feel. It is a tangible and present item your body will be connected with.
· Count as many things of the same color in the room as you can. Focusing on finding a color, will keep your eyes grounded and your brain channeled into your present surroundings.
· Wear headphones that play soft music which can help drown out sound but still let you hear if you need to hear to feel safe. It also is a visual deterrent which keeps people from bothering you, if you don’t care to be talked to in public.
· Look for shapes, just like you would colors. How many round or square things can you find?
· Be aware of your breathing. If you cross your arms over your diaphragm and press slightly, you can calm your breathing. Do this while slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Doing this will send extra oxygen to your brain and calm down the dizzy/floating feeling.
· Wear see through glasses to block light. Bright lights can cause us to have triggers as well. I wear inexpensive glasses which help block the invasive fluorescent lighting in stores which can sometimes cause light tracers in my peripheral vision. I love Cosmic Eyewear. These are the glasses I wear to the store. I like that the lens is soft, and my eyes can be seen. I certainly don’t want to walk through the store with the narcissistic sunglasses stride.
· Gratitude has been a major component of changing my thinking which helped calm triggers. Because it had such an impact on me, I created a journal to share my methods with others. “Becoming Gratitude” is a journal I still use every evening to help me reflect on my day. It’s a five week “course”, and well worth the ride. Read this review for a chuckle and some insight.
4. Processing your triggers develops your creative skills.
My dear friend, Cathy O’Brien, is the author of a great book, “PTSD: Time To Heal”, which deeply delves into processing triggers. All of my life, I have had a panic attack any time I saw a Raggedy Ann doll. I have a flash memory of being a child, sitting on a metal floor, with this doll in my lap. I have no other memories yet of the before or after with this scene. If I saw a photo of the doll or the doll itself, nausea would hit me. I began to sweat and have rapid heartbeat. One day, Cathy suggested that I make a piece of art based on Raggedy Ann to process the trigger. Since I often use collage art to process, I did just that. Since going through the process of creating this art, the reaction to the Raggedy Ann doll disappeared. Those emotions poured from my fingertips and now live in this piece of art.
There are so many ways that triggers help us develop our creative skills since creativity is one of the best ways to process triggers. There is no set rule to using creativity. I write poetry, short stories, create art, write songs, and enjoy finding new ways to channel my childhood trauma into creating something interesting and different. I love collage art, often cutting out magazines and using pieces to mix with paint and create something new. Here’s one example of how I used collage art to make a new book out of an outdated pocket planner:
We do not have to be prolific at anything. One trauma survivor uses stick figure drawings to process. Others write in fragmented sentences. Please don’t say to yourself that you are not “creative”, because by whose standards are you making that comparison? We all have creative capabilities. I have a primitive journal where I sketch trauma scenes; many pages I have not shared online. Some I have posted. They look like a small child drew them. Then I have more advanced art. My art, writing and creativity can morph and change depending on what I’m processing, the age I was at the time, and how the trauma chooses to come out.
Follow your own creativity. Don’t critique it. You’re processing, not necessarily creating something to sell…yet. If you’re writing, who cares if you have mistakes or half stories? You aren’t publishing it yet. It’s your first dump. My first dump of “Cult Child” is housed in wide ruled Dollar Store notebooks. Then transferred to an outline. Then draft after draft, and I am here, six years later doing yet another and hopefully final edit on this book. I stay independent as a creative. I am self-taught. There is literally nothing you can’t learn by searching it on YouTube. If you wish to do it, you can; in your way, in your time and your own comfort level.
5. The more we face our triggers, the more we eliminate them.
I avoided my triggers for decades. I ran from them immediately. I left grocery stores with a cart full of groceries because I was completely convinced I was about to pass out. The walls had separated from me. My heart was rapidly beating. I had no self-awareness development to understand that I was holding my breath in anxiety.
I also created scenarios of what COULD go wrong. What if someone comes in the store and starts shooting? What if we get robbed? What if I have a wreck? What if I pass out and no one gives a crap about me to help? What if I’m confronted and people film me instead of helping me? What if? What if? What if? Well, if “ifs” were fifths we’d all be drunk, wouldn’t we?
Cease rumination. It is a quagmire of impossible possibilities that WE create in our own minds. Rumination is a form of avoidance. It is the mind creating all the reasons why we SHOULD avoid what we really need to learn to cope with. This doesn’t mean these scenarios aren’t realistic. After all, if we watch news and everyday events, most of us might never leave our homes.
There is one thing I can promise you for sure. The more you learn to process triggers, pause and look at them, the less they will haunt you. If a child came to you and said, “I am so scared. I can’t breathe. I’m worried I’ll die.” What would you do for them? How would you soothe them? Whatever you would do for that worried little child, you must do for yourself.
Have you ever stared at yourself in the mirror and then suddenly felt a separation from yourself to the point you almost jump out of your skin? This is self-dissociation. I want to leave you with a task that will help you connect to that scared child who ran from the trauma but is ready to come home. Sit comfortably with a hand mirror and look at your eyes. When you feel the separation happening, put the mirror down and take some time to breathe.
“You are safe now.”
“I am here for you.”
“No one can hurt you anymore.”
When you feel re-balanced, pick the mirror back up and do it again. Every time you feel yourself dissociating, set the mirror down and soothe that little child. You will find that the more you do this mirror work, calling your inner child home, you will soon connect with your own eyes and dive inside yourself.
I believe in your ability to do this work. Reserve for yourself the right to rest. Demand it. If it’s quiet you need for a while, take it. It is yours. If you need to escape to the park for a minute and just sit in the grass for a couple of hours alone, then do it.
You better do it! You are worth it!