I had so many exciting plans for this week. Plans to reach some new fitness goals. Plans to be super productive with my work. Plans to meet up with some girlfriends. But then… WHAMM! A trauma trigger knocked me off course and all my plans got derailed.
Sometimes a trauma trigger can be obvious but sometimes, like this week, it can be subtle and really hard to spot.
All I knew was that something was that something felt off this week. Futility and self-blame had set in. I skipped workouts, missed my writing deadline and spiraled into a quagmire of darkness.
I couldn’t figure out what was bothering me or why, until today.
All week long I felt like I was dragging my feet. Everything felt like a chore. Getting out of bed in the morning took a Herculean effort. Working out at my usual 6am was almost impossible and when I did manage to drag myself from under the covers, I half-assed every workout.
I kept trying to put my plummeting mood down to external circumstances; The weather had been really dank and grey. My daughter was home from school with a nasty cold, again. She’d been keeping me up all night for days and I was extremely sleep-deprived. My dance teacher was still on vacation and I’d been really missing my lessons. But even cumulatively, none of these things were enough to justify the amount of futility and self-blame that I had begun to feel.
I was triggered and I forgot to use Tapping!
So how did I finally figure out what was getting me down? Did I stop to tap or journal or to sit and notice my feelings or body sensations? Honestly, no, for most of the week I did not!
I tried to brush it off, making the excuses we’ve all used at one time or another, like ‘I’m too busy to tap, it’ll pass soon, I’ll feel brighter tomorrow, I just have to keep pushing through’.
But the more I pushed the worse things got. The more I tried to ignore how I was feeling, the more bad things seemed to happen; the more I blamed myself for those things and the worse my futility became.
I blamed myself for everything from my cold-ridden daughter missing her dress-rehearsal at ballet to having to cancel my girl’s night out and everything in-between. It felt like there was no point in even trying when everything was going against me.
The turning point came when I tried and failed to get a workout to live-stream in our exercise room. My husband was passing through the room at the time and overheard me yelling at the tv:
‘Oh for fuck sake, the Universe hates me!! God clearly does not want me to do a workout.’
Now, this might sound dramatic, but it was the ridiculousness of my words that finally broke the pattern I had been running. Clearly something more was going on and it was way past time for me to stop pushing, to sit down and be with it. And so I did.
What I finally realized was that I’d been triggered. But by what?
What Was Your Experience Like?
Have you ever had an experience like this? Chances are that if you’ve experienced trauma like me, then you can relate to being triggered! Perhaps you’ve had an experience where you knew that things just didn’t feel right but you couldn’t work out why? Maybe you suddenly felt cranky, agitated or argumentative for no apparent reason? Or maybe you suddenly felt like needed to leave a restaurant or other public space or took an instant dislike to someone? Or perhaps you suddenly felt waves of grief, depression or futility that you just couldn’t shake?
The first step is recognizing that we’ve been triggered in the first place. This is not always very easy to do.
Especially because by its very nature, a trigger is something that sends our nervous system into survival mode; the fight, flight or freeze states, and from these states we aren’t as resourceful or able to see things clearly.
While everyone and every nervous system is unique, there are some commonalities that can help us in this process. Identifying our triggers is truly a matter of exploration and curiosity.
We have to become aware of our physiological responses as well as our emotional responses to things around us. That means noticing if our heart-rate suddenly sky-rockets or pausing if we suddenly get very angry or depressed. It’s also about noticing any significant changes in our behavior.
For me this week, I could have spotted so many clues (had I been willing to pay attention!) When I did finally decide to stop running from my feelings, dissociating and pushing through, it became abundantly clear to me that I had indeed been triggered.
Notice what might have happened to trigger you. When did your behavior or how you felt change? Was it a particular event or conversation perhaps?
If so, you can replay the situation slowly and carefully in your mind going over everything that happened (be aware that dissociation or re-triggering may occur and if it does – ground, ground, ground).
Pay close attention to the details. Notice where you were and who was around you. Were there any specific sounds or smells that made you feel uncomfortable?
Then, explore even further: what happened next or changed in the situation to make you feel triggered? What or who did you see, hear, smell, taste, touch or feel?
Identify: what was the actual trigger? And then what happened inside of you (what did you feel eg panic/dread/fear)? Naming any changes you can remember will really help you to identify and work with a trigger with the intention of calming your nervous system.
Lastly, see if you can connect what happened or how it made you feel to a situation from a past traumatic event.
For me, the process went like this:
I realized that I was having an intense over-reaction to the tv not working. I back-tracked to what had happened right before I started feeling futile and depressed and started blaming myself for everything.
I remembered that for the very first time, we had had a non-family member sleeping over at our house. We had hosted a party for our oldest son’s soccer team at the weekend. One of the kids stayed over.
I remembered telling my husband that I felt unsafe with the kid staying in the house. I remembered thinking that it was odd for this to bother me because what could possibly be threatening about a 10 year old child?! I also remembered worrying profusely about my daughter’s safety. I could not sleep and felt very on edge all night long.
By Monday, I felt drained and exhausted but consciously, I had forgotten all about the sleepover. This is why triggers can be so challenging and confusing. You see, I had had these awarenesses at the time of the sleep over, but it was a full 5 days later that I finally put all the pieces together.
It was only when I finally convinced myself to sit down and pay attention and tap that I was able to connect the sleep-over trigger with the extreme lack of safety that I had experienced growing up back then. I had been triggered by this child and this sleepover, but it was not about now!
It was about the danger that he and the sleepover represented to my nervous system. What I was being reminded of was a time of massive instability, uncertainty and fear coupled with the inescapability of frequent, sexually abusive house-guests.
I had been so afraid for my daughter not because she was in actual danger, but because the triggered part of me felt that I couldn’t keep her safe, just like no one kept me safe back then.
The moment that I had this awareness I felt immediate relief in my nervous system. The dread and terror that I’d been ignoring and pushing down just below the surface all week finally discharged from my body.
I used Somatic Experiencing and grounding techniques to allow the energy to dissipate. It was as if I could finally release the massive amount of pent-up survival energy that I had been bracing against all week.
But what about all that futility and self-blame I’d been feeling? Is it normal to feel this way when we get triggered?
Simply put, yes! The futility and self-blame that I experienced so strongly were actually the biggest clues that I’d been triggered. Not only that, but they were also a big indicator about the sexual nature of the original trauma too.
Futility and self-blame are extremely common responses to sexual trauma that are actually part of a complex unconscious, adaptive attempt to preserve a sense of control in the face of abuse.
If we go back for a moment to consider the definition of trauma. Trauma happens when a person experiences fear plus immobility. Trauma is inherently a loss of choice or control. It occurs when we feel immobilized, trapped and helpless.
Knowing this, it makes logical sense that being assaulted or abused is out of our control and not our fault. However, no matter whether the abuse was experienced as a child or as an adult, survivors frequently take on responsibility for their abuse, believing that they should or could have done something to stop it, subsequently, blaming themselves. Like all responses to trauma, there’s an adaptive reason for taking on this sense of responsibility or blame.
One reason that people (me included) form irrational self-blaming beliefs, habits and behaviors is to manage what is in reality, unmanageable and intolerable. You see, in the face of horrifying abuse, self-blame is more appealing than sitting with the utter hopelessness and futility of a complete loss of control.
Having no control or ability to prevent unthinkable things from happening shatters our worldview that we can be safe in the world. In this way we can understand why believing the assault was somehow our fault allows us to preserve some sense of control and therefore, hope.
When I was triggered, I resorted to a much younger age and pattern of behavior in repeatedly blaming myself for things that were clearly beyond my control and most definitely not my fault. This was not a conscious choice. Blaming myself for my daughter’s illness, the weather and my inability to figure out the tv were all unconscious attempts by my nervous system today to renegotiate the abuse that I had no control over back then.
So, once we’ve recognized that we’ve been triggered and we’ve played detective, what can we do next to help calm down our amygdala and our nervous system?
We can use EFT TAPPING… any here’s how…
It’s important to tap on the different aspects of the trigger. We must explore our physiological response as well as our emotional reactions.
We can then tap through the specifics of the event that triggered us as well as the original traumatic event (if we can consciously remember it). In addition we need to clear any sense of hopelessness or futility, reminding ourselves that what happened back then was not our fault.
Here are the steps again in outlined form:
Step #1 – Tap on the physiological response to the trigger
Step #2 – Tap on the emotional reactions you had to the trigger
Step #3 – Tap on the specifics of the event that triggered you
Step #4 – Tap on the specifics of the original traumatic event
Step #5 – Tap on any sense of hopelessness or futility that emerges
Although the script below is very general, if you’ve experienced trauma and have ever been triggered, this tapping will help you to calm your nervous system.
If you’re going through something and you’d like guidance and support, click here to find out about working with me one-on-one: