Being triggered is exhausting.
It feels like being in a constant state of fight or flight. It feels like panic. It feels like a reduced ability to think clearly and stay calm. It feels like fog, a buzzing in my ears. Everything sounds too loud, lights are too bright, smells too strong. My clothes touching my body make me feel disgusting, fat and out of control. Ana is screaming at me not to eat, while another part of me is saying that not eating will make me more panicked. An internal war begins. I feel like I’m in danger.
If someone tells me to “calm down” or “not worry,” the panicked feeling turns to desperate anger and I find it hard to keep it hidden inside.
If the trigger goes on for a long time, especially if it is combined with actual real life danger or stress, I eventually become exhausted. I am desperate for the uncomfortable feelings to pass.
And in the desperation I always begin obsessing about self harm and sometimes suicide. Intellectually I know that this doesn’t make sense, but it’s my brain’s default setting for TOO MUCH STRESS! I learned about 4 years ago that my suicidal ideation is a red flag, it’s a signal from my brain that I need to reduce my stress ASAP. It’s not really about dying, it’s about ending the horrible painful, out of control panic feeling. NOW.
My main ways of coping with self harming thoughts and suicidal ideation is by trying to tune out. I do this mainly by surfing the internet, checking facebook, texting, checking my phone and also by blogging. I find that technology is a good way of tuning out the self destructive thoughts for a while. So sometimes, when I’m checking my phone too often, even if it annoys you, even if it seems impolite, try not to judge, I might be coping and distracting myself from negative thoughts.
Another great way of coping with triggers is exercise. Before I developed arthritis I used to cope by running. That was amazing. I miss it so much. Walking can help, getting out into nature can help, dancing can help, moving my body and letting some of the pressure release. But when I’m at home, my go to coping during the evening (the most difficult time of day for self harm urges) is texting and internet time.
It’s hard to explain triggers to people who don’t have PTSD. People who live with panic attacks or generalized anxiety can understand parts of it. But PTSD triggers are a little different somehow, because they are connected very tightly with actual bad events which have happened in a person’s life. It becomes very difficult at times to distinguish between immediate stressors in day to day life, and abuse/danger/violence.
Triggers can also be emotional. For example one of my main triggers is feeling like I am not being believed, or even might not be believed when I’m speaking my truth. Another is feeling like I’m going to get into trouble for doing something which is reasonable and not generally perceived as negative. These feelings are related to gaslighting, emotional abuse and systemic/systematic institutional abuse and neglect.
When I’m triggered what I need is to get grounded as quickly as possible. If I can’t get grounded then what I need is to keep myself safe and as calm as possible. Sometimes this means that I want to be at home, be alone, or be with people I feel safe expressing myself with. Staying safe sometimes means spending hours online after the kids are asleep, or lying in bed all evening because I don’t trust myself to make safe choices. I’m not being lazy, I’m protecting myself in the best ways I have learned how.
Sometimes when I’m triggered I disassociate or space out. I might seem emotionally distance or cold. I might be more emotional, or my emotions might seem out of proportion with reality. That’s because they are! They are a reaction to reality PLUS the past trigger related to abuse and violence.
I know I’m not doing a perfect job at life when I’m triggered. I constantly worry that others will judge me because my capacity to perform at my highest level is reduced. My brain will literally shut down, I will have problems remembering things, trouble finding the right words under pressure, I might cry or freeze up, grow silent or suddenly angry. I might be impatient with the kids when they haven’t really done anything wrong. I might snap at those close to me, or not be as kind as usual. I don’t mean to. Believe me my level of guilt is so high that it contributes to the problem! I know I’m not acting “normal” but I can’t help it. Sometimes I need space to get grounded, sometimes I need others to remind me that even though it’s difficult I’m doing my best and that is good enough.
If the triggers are entirely related to the past, and no danger exists in the present, for example during consenting sex, it helps for the other person to remind me “you are safe right now, it’s 2016, you are with _____, nobody is going to hurt you”
If the triggers are related to the past, but there is some threat in the present moment, it helps to acknowledge both sets of feelings are real. Yes, this situation reminds me of the past, that is difficult and scary. Yes, there is some threat in the present and that is scary too. I might need to get grounded FIRST and then brainstorm solutions to the present situation. Sometimes self care can play an important role in grounding.
PTSD is invisible, triggers are invisible, all this is happening inside my brain and my body is reacting. It sometimes feelings as if the past is happening all over again. Especially when triggers lead to flashbacks.
Please understand I’m doing the best I can. PTSD is a difficult illness and because it is invisible it can be hard for others to understand.
Compassion helps triggers. Everyone deserves to feel safe. But when you live with PTSD, feeling safe can be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. When you aren’t quite sure what the needle looks like, or if it is REALLY in the haystack! You aren’t even sure exactly why you need the needle and what you are going to do with it when you find it!
Yes, life can be confusing. Triggers can be confusing. PTSD can be confusing.
Tonight I’m confused, but I’m coping as I write.