I was home alone, climbing into bed with my book. I needed to unwind because I had a very early start scheduled for the next day. Just as I pulled the blanket over me, a gunshot rang out in the night. It was close. I froze midway to lying down. I listened for a scream, for yelling, for something. I tried to tell myself someone was firing a warning shot at a bear or deer, and that something not bad was happening. But my stomach betrayed me.
Switching the bedside lamp off, I sat for a moment with my own shallow breathing. Panic threatened to rise, and I tried to push it back down. But I was transported to a time almost 18 years before, and the flight side of “fight or flight” kicked in. I retreated to the living room, the middle of my house, where I could watch both the front and back doors, just in case. My stomach turned. I swallowed fear as it tried to rise like acid, and I calmed my mind as best I could. Yet, the body remembers fear, and I could not convince myself that I was safe, that this night was not the night of so many years ago.
At the time, I told my husband that I was spooked, but recounting it a few days later, I could feel tears rise up. I was more than spooked. I had been triggered, and it was lingering.
That’s how triggers happen. You are fine, fine, fine, and then something happens. It doesn’t have to be as intense or extreme as the actual sound of a gun, but maybe it is. Or maybe it’s someone who looks like your abuser, just the back of their head, the way the curls hit their neck. Or, as in the case of a certain teacher when I was in college, someone who carries the scent of your abuser.
No amount of preparation can stop a trigger from happening, but we can work on how we respond when it happens.
When I am triggered, I allow myself to understand where the fear is coming from. What memory is attached? Am I scared, sad, hurt, or angry?
What can I do to soothe myself? Sometimes I sit with the memory because shoving it away is not the same as dealing with it. Other times, I can shrug it off with facts. “That can’t be him. He is gone. That person cannot hurt me.” And still other times, I retreat, as I did with the gunshot. The “flight” side of me spoke to me of more than just the past; it reminded me that a gunshot can still be a presently dangerous situation, and I believe in the gift of fear.
“You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” -Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
In dealing with the aftermath of the initial trigger, it helps to talk to someone, preferably someone who understands what it’s like to be triggered. I sat across from a close friend and shared my experience with her. To some, it might have seemed like a silly incident. A gun went off. So what? But to her, she got it. She understood the emotions wrapped in the “simple” incident.
I also find turning to writing helps me to process (you see what I’m doing here?). Writing out the fear, the scene, the breath caught in my throat, it all helps move me beyond that initial moment. The more I give myself space to process, instead of waving it away as silly, the easier it becomes to let it go.
As healing continues, there are no guarantees or quick fixes to avoid triggers. But we can give ourselves grace as they come up. And with a solid plan in place for how to process when they happen, we can get to the other side easier.
When You’re Triggered
- Ask yourself where the emotion is coming from?
- What memories are surfacing?
- Are you scared, sad, afraid, hurt, or angry?
- Sit with the emotion and allow yourself to feel it.
- Don’t just push it away. It’s too heavy to keep carrying.
- Talk yourself through the facts: You’re safe now. Your abuser can’t hurt you. Your abuser is in jail. Your abuser died. Your abuser doesn’t know where you live.
- Take some time for yourself.
- Talk to a trusted loved one or friend.
- Or reach out to a/your counselor.
- Write it out. Share it or don’t. Just write to process it.
- Give yourself grace. Healing is a journey.
When you’ve been triggered, what helped you to move past the initial emotions?