Perhaps you are reading this blog because you are familiar with/ have personal experience of mental health problems of some description. You may well not have a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis though. Regardless of whether you have PTSD or not, if you follow a PTSD blog you will read the word “trigger” in PTSD blogs a great deal.
I never usually bother explaining what the word trigger means, as I assume, probably wrongly, that everyone knows…To me, triggers are everyday, not worthy of the time taken to explain them. To be honest just dealing with them demands all my effort, but that is not going to demystify PTSD to non-sufferers of this disorder, so tonight explanations are in order, as tonight I was t.r.i.g.g.e.r.e.d.
When we pull the trigger on a gun, the gun fires. We cannot pull the trigger then intercept the gun firing and realise it was one huge mistake and we shouldn’t have pulled the trigger. Before we realise the trigger has been successfully pulled on the gun in our hands, we hear the gunshot and feel the gun back-fire (I imagine, though I have never fired a gun because I’m not James Bond, or maybe the feminine version, Jasmine).
The gap between the trigger being pulled and the gun fire is incredibly fucking quick. Too quick to cognitively analyse and process in our pre-frontal cortex (the rational brain bit).
The first we know of the gun firing, is audibly registering the sensory information of the actual gunfire.
We’ll also visually see the spark. We’ll see the smoke. We’ll feel the tension in our fingers.
PTSD triggers are virtually instantaneous emotional, physiological and psychological reactions to something detected in the environment.
This is what happens. Perceive threat-GUN ALREADY FUCKING FIRED, like 2 seconds ago-TRIGGER ALREADY fucking PULLED-but by who?? We didn’t pull the trigger! We are NOT in control or responsible for the trigger pulling of the gun… Truth be told, we usually don’t even know we are holding the damn gun in the first place, till we hear the gunshot, smell the smoke, see the spark, and feel the adrenaline spread, created by the feel of the gun in our hand and the blind SHOCK and panic of it all.
We blink and we try to take it all in, in an adrenaline induced concept of ‘time is altered and the world is unreal’ kind of way.
We cannot take in the shock of what just happened.
What the fuck? Where did this gun come from? What happened? Is anyone hurt? What will happen next? Should I FIGHT, FLIGHT, FAWN or FREEZE in response to this threat?
Why is the floor sucking me down? Why have my legs gone to jelly? Why am I dizzy? Why do I feel like I’m sat on top of a skyscraper in strong winds? Why are newly forming tears threatening to prick the behinds of my eyes?
What the actual FUCK is happening?
Why did it happen?
Who else is is happening to?
Is anyone else as upset as me?
Why are they talking and laughing like nothing has happened?
Why are they not startled by the fucking GUN in my hand?
Can they not see the smoke?
What about the spark?
What about hearing the BANG?
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?
That was an extremely detailed and zoomed in description of a millisecond of time.
Then other milliseconds get added. Our brains are constantly responding.
Has the threat gone yet? No. Has it gone yet? No. Are we safe? Well technically objectively we are safe, I guess, but we don’t FEEL safe. We feel FAR FROM FUCKING SAFE. Why am I the only one feeling alarmed and unsafe here? Why the hell me and only me?
I WAS TRIGGERED.
But I wasn’t in a dangerous situation. I was chatting happily with lovely friends in my kitchen.
I still haven’t calmed down.
TRIGGER. BANG. BOOM.
HIDE. RUN. CRY
The trigger was us discussing with other parents of our daughter’s friends something about bedtime routines… how their daughter struggled to sleep and sometimes shared with the parents. One mother in one room with one daughter. Then the (very lovely and non-threatening) father sharing with other daughter…because sleep is difficult etc…
That was reasonable and all families have to decide on the best way to deal with sleeping difficulties that work for their family, so I am not judging…but the mere mention of it TRIGGERED the process of memory recall of my horrible experiences of co-sleeping with my dad who, readers will know, sexually abused me throughout my childhood and adolescence.
There was nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with what was said…..just that for me, with my sexual abuse history, it made me remember what happened to me.
PTSD, in simple terms is an exaggerated sensitivity to perceived threat in the environment, in response to having suffered a traumatic (or multiple) traumatic events. We live in a state of physiological over-reactivity, and hypervigilance, motivated by a desire to avoid any reminders of the trauma memories. We know how bad it feels to remember, so we try not to do anything that might make us remember.
Sometimes as a PTSD survivor, we may have advance warnings that triggering of memories is likely…but usually we don’t. Usually it just happens.
I could not build up a prior defence to being triggered tonight, by thinking, “the chances are the conversation will steer itself around to something that reminds me of my shitty trauma-filled childhood” so I best get ready….!
I did not expect there to be discussion of bedtime routines, so I hadn’t developed in advance a problem-solving strategy to take, in the event of ‘dad sharing bed occasionally with daughter’ chat coming up. I never expected that…and I know my friends would probably not expect this to have affected me so much, and definitely would not have intended to discuss anything that was sensitive for me.
With the best will in the world, good people do not have a conversational handbook on them, with step by step instructions on how to talk to someone sexually abused in semi-religious cults!
If there were a handbook, it would be very niche, and no copies would sell, even if one were to be printed.
No-one can know what will trigger someone with PTSD, unless we explicitly say. Someone with PTSD, who has a history of CSA or child rape will know not to raise bedtime or bathtime or nakedness with a friend….but with people who don’t have PTSD, they don’t think, because their brain is not primed to threat, and linked up with horrible traumatic memories like ours is.
My brain is primed for exaggerated reaction, but the world does not act in accordance with helping me avoid my triggers. The world happens as it happens and people talk as they talk….not every can understand us, and in truth, most people don’t.
Even my husband doesn’t understand.
I tell him repeatedly DO NOT USE THE LIGHT OF YOUR MOBILE PHONE TO ILLUMINATE THE DARK AT NIGHT, SUDDENLY, WITHOUT WARNING ME FIRST.
IT FREAKS THE HELL OUTTA ME.
WHEN I PULL HIM UP ON IT HE SAYS “OH YEAH, SORRY. I FORGOT.”
But that is too late for me. I’ve been triggered. The gun has fired. I see smoke. I see the spark. I hear the colossal BANG and before I know it I’m holding a smoking PTSD gun.
Just the phrase “…..sometimes sleeps with her dad” was all it took for me.
I cannot describe how I felt and still feel.
I still feel awful and this trigger happened an hour or so ago.
My night is ruined.
But it isn’t anyone’s fault…it is just the unfortunate truth of life living with this illness.
This is why I get annoyed at people who think I should be “over it”.
I am not “over it”…I just manage it better than before when things were so bad I wanted to die to end my indescribable distress.
How can a rational person argue with the effect of PTSD triggers? We are not milking them. We are not indulging in them and choosing to respond in this exaggerated way.
Our brain and our physiology is disturbed because of trauma.
Give me a rational way to argue with PTSD triggers and believe me, I will use them.
What I did tonight was sit mindfully…I said quietly in my head “I have been triggered. Someone has said something that reminded me of traumatic memories, but that was in the past. I am safe here and now. My name is…..I am…..years old. I live in…..I am not a child anymore. He can’t get to me….(he, being dad).”
That was how I attempted to ground myself into the reality of the present moment. I acknowledge I have been triggered, that has made me feel overwhelming feelings and created changes in my body, but I am safe now and the memories can’t hurt me.
Tell me what you think I could have done beyond that?
How would you comfort yourself?
If you do not have PTSD and have NOT experienced trauma, how do you reconcile this in your head?
Imagine how you would feel.
Remember, I am not playing for PTSD platitude bingo…I want sensible answers that acknowledge the truth of what I’ve explained in this post.
If you can deal with PTSD triggers better than I can…please tell me how.
…And to people who do have PTSD, how do you deal with triggers?
I am going to go and relax now after writing this, have a cuddle with my hubby, chat things over briefly, then distract myself with some entertaining telly under the comfort of my fleecy blanket, and take a sleeping tablet to ensure I am not kept awake by my anxiety symptoms…
How do you relax most efficiently and quickly after experiencing a trigger?
I believe as survivors we should share good practise, to help each other out.
I may not reply to comments as my head isn’t in a great place, but I will read them with interest and the comments should help other survivors who stumble across this blog and are seeking to understand their PTSD. Let’s help each other, to make life easier X