On my blog entry entitled Living in the Present to Dismantle Triggers, a reader posted the following question:
I have a question about triggers. I have only recently begun to uncover memories as vague pictures in my head, so there are not many of them. Whenever I read or hear about people being triggered by something they usually refer to memories or flashbacks that come with them. I feel triggered by things all the time since I was young—objects, specific words, actions, etc.—but I have no memories or flashbacks that come as a result. Instead, I feel a strange sense of panic, shame, and arousal. Are these technically still triggers? If not, what are they? ~ Brynn
What Brynn describes is very common for child abuse survivors who have not begun or are early into the healing process. Child abuse survivors react to different triggers without knowing why. They only know that they are phobic of different triggers or have unexplained reactions to them. Child abuse survivors might even find that they suddenly feel a negative shift in their mood without having any idea why. It might take them years to connect the dots to a particular trigger.
A trigger is anything that connects the dots in a child abuse survivor’s head between a present day reminder of a past trauma. For example, I have always had a phobia of Russian nesting dolls but never knew why. Whenever I saw Russian nesting dolls, particularly if they were “opened,” I would feel shaky and lightheaded. Even writing the words now causes a panic reaction in me. My blood pressure rises, my breathing becomes shallow, and I feel a tightening in my private areas. This is a common reaction to a severe trauma, and you don’t have to remember the “why” to have this reaction.
I used to get triggered by being around my mother/abuser (Go figure!) even though I had no conscious memories of her abuse. Whenever I visited with her, I felt very lightheaded and dizzy. This was being triggered, but I didn’t know it. I had trouble staying focused around her. It was like looking at her through the wrong end of a telescope or trying to communicate through a fog.
Whenever I was with her, I would feel very strong emotions (including anger – something I rarely felt otherwise), and I would make mental notes about things I wanted to tell my friends about the visit later (all things to mock her). However, when I left her presence, I had trouble remembering the visit. I would go straight home with the intention of making fun of my mother to my husband, but I couldn’t access those memories. I simply couldn’t remember much about the visit, even though it had just happened.
The triggers are already in place because the trauma has already happened. Whether or not you understand the connection does not factor into your reaction – you will still get triggered whether your have accessed the memory or not. The difference is that, through healing, you can dismantle the trigger as you understand the origin. That is where therapy comes in as well as other alternative methods such as EMDR.
Photo credit: Hekatekris