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Posts Tagged ‘triggers without memories’

Yesterday, I addressed the topic of whether a child abuse survivor can get triggered without having any memories of flashback associated with the triggering. On that blog entry, a reader posted the following comment:

I had always thought my triggering was me just being unbalanced and messed up. I was verrry hard on myself and also thought I was wrong and “over-the-top,” emotionally unstable, etc. I relate with Brynn in that at first, I didn’t have memories or flashbacks attached. I would just be having some kind of “irrational” reaction, with nothing associated with it and then would come the hailstorm of self-abusive thoughts- “What’s wrong with you?? Why can’t you function like a normal person! You’re feeling like you want to die because you saw a child crying from dropping his ice cream cone?? Don’t you think that’s a little RIDICULOUS? You’re a complete messed up loser case.” ~ Jackie

Jackie did a great job of describing how it feels to be triggered without knowing why (or even knowing that what you are experiencing is being triggered). I would like to build on what Jackie shared with my own experiences as additional examples.

Throughout my life (before awakening to the realities of the child abuse), I would feel a sudden onset or sway in my emotional state without knowing why. That’s just the way I always was, so I guess I didn’t realize that it wasn’t “normal.” I sometimes worried that I was mentally ill (especially since my mother was clearly mentally ill, although undiagnosed), so I never talked to anyone else about it or asked if they had this experience, too.

A good 5 or 6 years before recovering my first flashback, I remember sitting in my cubicle at work trying to understand why I was having such a severe reaction to something so “stupid.” I shared a cluster of cubicles with two other women who invited me to go to lunch. I declined because I had brought my lunch, and I didn’t want to disappoint my husband by spending money by eating out. (I now marvel that I used to think like that!)

The women returned from lunch laughing, and they finished a conversation in one of their cubicles that apparently had carried over from lunch. I was bombarded with deep feelings of shame, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Strange thoughts were racing around my head – “They are laughing at me. They hate me. They think I am so stupid for not going to lunch with them. I will never fit in anywhere. Nobody will ever like me. I am a stupid, stupid person who is completely unlovable. Why would anyone ever like a stupid person like me?”

Keep in mind that I had already earned a graduate degree from a Top Ten university, so I am clearly not a “stupid” person. Yet, the word “stupid” used to rattle around my brain and undermine my confidence, even though I knew objectively that I was smart. These women had invited me to join them for lunch, so they clearly did not dislike me. They probably did not think a thing about my declining their invitation other than that perhaps I didn’t have much spending money. (I later became close friends with one and got along well with the other, so I wasn’t picking up on any unspoken vibes.)

I wanted to react to this flood of emotions that came from seemingly nowhere, but I also knew objectively that I could not trust them. So, I had a lot of inner thoughts about recognizing that I cannot trust myself. I cannot trust these weird floods of emotions because they are not grounded in the reality around me. I made a conscious choice never to act on these floods of emotions and, instead, use only the logical part of my brain to decipher how I should logically act in a situation. Because I logically had no reason to be upset, I would disregard these feelings and try very hard to act like I don’t feel them. I certainly could not “trust” anything that I felt because it was so “off” from reality. It was exhausting to live this way, and it also prevented me from listening to my intuition.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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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

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