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Unpicking Triggers

Please note that I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist. If you think you’re suffering from past or current trauma, please seek help that isn’t just me rambling on, okay?

I’m trying to repair myself, and this is what I’m learning.

What are triggers?

Here’s my definition of a trigger, in the psychological sense:

A trigger is a thought or event that sets in motion a series of semi-automatic responses in an attempt to protect that person or others from harm.

I sometimes find myself responding to situations in ways that I don’t understand. Maybe it was just growing up with 80s and 90s media, but I thought that trauma was supposed to like a flashback, a memory of past events that was supposed to flash before my eyes. Like the movie Jacob’s Ladder.

Apparently it doesn’t have to.

For me, it can also look like…

  • Anxiety and panic attacks.
  • Feelings of paranoia (which aren’t always just in my head!).
  • Getting extremely defensive or going on the offense before I get attacked. (Or downplaying any compliments I receive.)
  • Passionately standing up for others, whether or not I care about the person, but because of the situation they’re in.
  • Controlling or manipulating other people, thinking that I’m doing it to keep them out of dangerous situations. (Uh-huh.)
  • Getting mad at someone and feeling like you’re perfectly justified to do so, because they should have known you’d get mad at them.
  • Focusing on “defeating” other people’s arguments instead of understanding them.
  • Feeling helpless and giving up easily.
  • Finding things I used to enjoy becoming uninteresting or even repulsive.
  • Becoming extremely people-pleasing.
  • Suddenly becoming depressed or down on myself.
  • Suddenly thinking catastrophic thoughts, like, “I’m going to die broke.”
  • Suddenly thinking that people hate me or are deliberately trying to hurt me.
  • Forgetting periods of time, or only remembering them vaguely, as placeholders.
  • Nervous habits like biting my nails or picking skin.
  • Changing the subject, often without even realizing I’m doing so until later.
  • Zoning out to do habitual, mindless actions. (Like playing endless games of Sudoku.)
  • Escaping into books, games, videos, etc.
  • Doing anything other than coping with what’s really bothering me. Like cleaning.
  • Suddenly getting hurt or sick or having an escalation in health issues when I’m stressed.
  • Excitedly trying new things! And then abandoning them or self-sabotaging.
  • Repeatedly getting stuck on projects.
  • Never having time for projects, self-care, or relaxation.
  • Self-sabotaging in general.

And probably a ton more things.

A trigger doesn’t have to be a bad way to respond to a situation. It’s just that I have little or no conscious control over it. I haven’t consciously chosen how to respond, and sometimes my responses aren’t appropriate.

The example I like to use (because I’m mostly over it) is getting scared to go into a Target department store. I was scared to go into Target for over a year after my divorce. There was no rhyme or reason to it—it was just something that made me feel anxious, fearful, impatient, or even angry.

Understanding triggers

But that stuff just happens! It’s not necessarily connected to past trauma! Why does everything have to be trauma?!?

I don’t know about you, but I have had to acknowledge that my conscious mind is not always in charge of what I do. I feel like I get dragged around by the rest of me…a lot.

Example:

Last year, I told myself that I was going to drop off a book at a local little free library while I was on a walk. I forgot to bring the book with me, decided not to go back and get it, and went for the walk.

I got “turned around” in the neighborhood and passed the little free library THREE TIMES before I could figure out how to get home.

The next morning I forgot the book again, started walking, and…went back to get the book.

Once I had the book dropped off, I was fine.

I realize that sort of episode isn’t proof that the subconscious is real or that it controls anyone’s behavior; this sort of thing happens to me often enough that I don’t feel comfortable going “stuff just happens” anymore.

For me, stuff doesn’t just happen.

The part that I’m coming to understand is that it doesn’t mean that I’m crazy or weak.

It just means that I learned a deeply ingrained habit that at one point I truly believed—however irrationally—would help me stay safer with it than without it.

Being able to handle dangerous situations is not bad.

But bringing all my weapons and defenses to bear on a situation that isn’t dangerous isn’t…great. And making myself avoid dangerous situations also sucks: if I never take what feels like a dangerous risk, then I won’t take the chance to get what I want out of life.

Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t make danger go away by pretending it didn’t exist! Not as an adult, anyway; it was essential as a kid to pretend that everything was fiiiiiine.

Some things should trigger an automatic reaction, though. If you feel too much heat from a burner on the stove, you should jerk your hand away, right?

But I shouldn’t have the same reaction at the very idea of walking into a Target.

Probably.

How do I know if something is a trigger?

Here’s the deal. I’ve decided it doesn’t matter if something is “really” a trigger or not. If it makes me react in a way that, upon further reflection, I dislike, am not proud of, is mentally or physically draining, or ends up with me getting hurt or sick, I’m going to call it a trigger whether or not anyone else agrees.

Maybe that’s a first step that I need to talk about, the ability to finally do things whether or not anyone agrees, but I’m not feeling it as I write this so I won’t. (See how that works?)

To me, the real question is, if everything feels like a trigger, where should I start?

The answer is, I think, the one that makes me react the hardest at the moment.

If I waited until I knew what all my triggers were before I started unpicking them, I’d never start. Because I’m sure if I thought I could get out of unpicking triggers by coming up with more triggers, I would. 100%.

Unpicking triggers

No two triggers have unpicked exactly alike for me.

Teaching myself not to bite my nails (an ongoing project) didn’t look like learning how to feel safe in Target (mostly accomplished).

It’s weird. I’m finding it harder to stop biting my nails, I think, because I’m not upset about my fingernails. I can maintain enough fingernails to peel off tape from a box and do similar functional things; having chewed-on nails and cuticles doesn’t seem to upset me. I wish I didn’t do it, but I’m not upset about it when I do. Mostly I try to stop biting my nails because it bothers other people.

Eh.

When I hit a trigger and decide to unpick it, it goes roughly like this:

  • I tell a few people what’s going on—my adult daughter, for one, because I live with her.
  • I’ll tell other people as I can, because I need other people’s support.
  • I get somewhere safe to be emotional and irrational (and possibly mean).
  • I let myself have the full emotional reaction. I hate it but it always ends up being necessary.
  • I focus on how awful I feel and give myself permission to feel that way.
  • I let the emotion run hot for as long as I can. If I get tired, I have some books and other media I can use for relief. Light stuff, nothing too deep.
  • When I can, I write out what I’m thinking and feeling. Then I think about what I’m writing. Is what I’m feeling valid or just panic? Is it fair? I’ll often send what I write to other people; it forces me to be a little more self-conscious and a little (!) less whiny.
  • I usually end up exploring a lot of dead ends that I think are “right” until I look closer. Siiiiiigh.
  • The underlying reason usually ends up being something I can’t resolve for some reason.
  • I often have to grieve that things won’t just work out the way I want them to. I’m a crier so I cry.
  • Once I grieve, I can figure out how I want to handle the initial issue, instead of just reacting to it.
  • I may have to repeat the process.
  • Sometimes unpicking a trigger means I discover new triggers to unpick.

I sat outside of Target in my car more than once to sort out why I was terrified of going in, journaling why I was so upset, and finally grieving the loss of my sense of safety. Once I really acknowledged those things, I was able to find practical ways to feel safe at Target.

It turns out my fear of going to Target wasn’t all in my head (I almost got run over in the parking lot multiple times during Covid-19), but that I wasn’t handling that fear in a way that would keep me safe. I tried to make myself smaller and more inoffensive, because that was what worked in the face of irrational anger while I was growing up. Not as an adult around entitled upper-middle-class white people facing the prospect of a worldwide plague, though! But it turns out that even suburban soccer moms will back off if you learn how not to show fear.

After the trigger

After I unpick a trigger, I have to decide what to do instead. The situation doesn’t go away; I still need to deal with it. In a lot of cases, I have no idea what to do or even how to start breaking the larger situation into smaller steps. I was raised to not feel my own emotions, to be creeped out whenever something was apparently going well, and to blame myself for all problems, whether or not I was responsible. I was raised to think of myself as evil, lazy, too smart for my own good, and unable to control myself. Nothing feels naturally “good” or “safe.” I don’t have good instincts to follow.

This means a lot of well-meaning advice about “just listen to your gut” or “trust yourself!” doesn’t really apply to me. Instead I have to try things out and hope for the best.

Here’s what has turned out to be healthy for me so far:

  • Acknowledge when my emotions make me uncomfortable.
  • Acknowledge that I’m the kind of person who is just always complicated.
  • Put myself in “time out” when my emotions make me uncomfortable, rather than rushing to react to them or suppress them. I don’t force myself to sit and think about them, either. I just veg out, watch anime, play video games (that aren’t Sudoku or addictive phone games), take a bath, go for a walk, etc.
  • Maintain my physical health so it isn’t a drag on my mental health.
  • Keep my ADHD under control, because when I’m drained my impulse control is negligible.
  • Remind myself that I’m not responsible for other people’s emotions, actions, or reactions; I am only responsible for myself. “It is not your job to make sure other people feel comfortable” is something I repeat fairly often these days.
  • Give myself extra time to figure out what I want, instead of rushing to choose. Even if that’s inconvenient for other people.
  • Unfriend or block people on social media who consistently creep me out. (I’ve already purged all the actual assholes; these are people who want to manipulate me but will back down if I call them on it.)
  • Ask for what I want and need, so I don’t feel resentful or try to manipulate my way into getting what I want. (Weirdly, I discovered that what I want and need aren’t big issues with most people.)
  • Set boundaries for what I will and will not do around people, and plan for what to do if it looks like I might cross that line.
  • Talk to people more openly about what’s going on inside me, so I don’t have to keep my inner world bottled up…until it explodes!
  • Include whatever I’m thinking and feeling for that day in my fiction, whether or not the plot really calls for it. (This has made for some really nice fiction lately, too.)
  • Setting boundaries, not so much to tell people no as to make sure they have a clear idea of what yes looks like.
  • Letting people know when I’m not at my best, both to warn them and to put myself on notice that bad behavior isn’t acceptable.

A lot of what I used to do involved shutting up and making myself quieter, less complex, and more “good.” Allowing myself to be more expressive, take up time and space, be more complex (even inconsistent), and not to care about “good” or “bad” at the expense of suppressing my own conscience—that is, letting myself be inconvenient—has been quite the adventure.

It never feels like a big deal to release the trigger and put something else in its place. It feels like I’m making drama for myself, like I’m making things ten times harder than it needs to be.

Then a situation comes up where I used to have to react in a very triggery, automated way, and I…don’t have to.

I don’t have to downplay compliments when I get them: I can actually enjoy them. I don’t have to spend all day worrying about what someone meant when they said something. I can just ask them—or I can ignore them. I don’t have to panic when I’m navigating a crowd; I can relax and go with the flow, as it were, and not let people shove me around. I can say “no,” and now when I say “yes” I can actually mean it.

I used to say that my nervous system ran on a fear-based economy, and the only reason I ever did anything was that I was terrified of what would happen if I didn’t. At the time I thought it made sense, although of course it never did.

Living while ruled by fear—that is, while ruled by my triggers—meant that I had to fight myself to get anything else done. I got a lot done, and I’m impressed with my past self’s strength in overcoming myself.

But now that I’m not my own worst (fear-based) enemy, it’s time to use that strength for other things.

If you found this post insightful, please check out my fiction! I have a new novel, The Witch House, coming out soon. Check it out!

Cover for the Witch House by DeAnna Knippling

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