I’ve written before about how triggers can hit out of nowhere, even on vacation we are never too far away from a situation that can knock us back a few steps.
I was talking to a survivor about this recently; what specific situations can often trigger me, causing flashbacks and dissociation. One of those is family gatherings or social settings where family and friends are abundantly present.
She acknowledged and admitted similar anxiety in those situations, but also mentioned that she felt pretty confident in being able handle events like this due to her long term healing work. This was nice to hear as I knew having someone by my side would likely help.
So neither of us were expecting a trigger at a random holiday gathering, but the trauma gods must have seen an opportunity and jumped at it.
I swear those trauma gods, as I have now officially dubbed them, just bide their time and look for a chance to test our progress and resiliency in healing.
Anyways, it’s a typical family type holiday atmosphere during the summer. Cookout, people talking and laughing, catching up and sharing stories, meeting guests who have tagged along (yes that was me).
I went into this experience knowing that I could be triggered, but even when we think we are prepared to handle what comes at us, sometimes we just aren’t.
Sitting on a couch, looking through old photos, greeting cards, and hearing about travel stories from days gone by, I came across an old calendar. It was from 1976, and I was intrigued with it for some reason. Of course I was curious as to what day my birthday was on in that year.
Bad move Matt…not good dude!
As I’m leafing through this old calendar, I’m enjoying seeing the old advertisements for the “5 & 10” stores, pictures on each month’s page, and just marveling at how simple things seemed back then. I really do like that, retro stuff is always amazing to me.
I come across my birthday, and I see that it was on a Wednesday in 1976 and that I was 5 years old then. Immediately, and I mean like a bolt of lightening, I got hit with flashbacks of my abuse and the letter my mother wrote earlier this year.
I felt my anxiety sky rocket, I began to fidget, dissociate, and felt very uneasy.
I couldn’t pull myself away from staring at that date on the calendar; for several minutes I was fixated on it as if being drawn to it by a force I was powerless to resist.
It took me a few minutes to regain my composure and I knew I needed to excuse myself and take some time for quick self care and deal with this unexpected flood of emotions.
During my healing journey; both on my own, and working with professionals, I have learned to realize what I need to do to deal with a trigger and how to handle anxiety.
Don’t mistake that for me thinking I have it all together, or that I’m some super survivor dude whose “got it all together”. I have learned over time though, and with practice and research, that I can handle these situations better than I used too.
I’m still a work in progress, as are all survivors. We never stop healing and learning about ourselves.
I excused myself, walked out to the deck and immediately began using some mindful breathing, being fully present in the here and now, and analyzing the situation for what it was.
Breathe in, Breathe out, concentrate on the breath. Feel your chest rise on the inhale, and focus on the air leaving my hose on the exhale. This is a great way to begin regaining your composure rather quickly.
The answer is no; and rational mind starts to take over again and we realize we are safe. Our past is not happening right now, it’s a flashback. A sign that our minds are still triggered by certain things, but it is not a sign that we are re-experiencing our trauma all over again.
After doing the breathing and analyzing the reality of the situation I used the Tap, Tap, Smile, Cancel technique that my good friend Athena Moberg taught me.
- Tap your left shoulder
- Tap your right shoulder
- Smile, and say “Cancel”.
Almost immediately I felt more ease, and the triggers began to subside. After a couple more minutes I was able to return to the group feeling a bit more confident. I was cognizant of what transpired but I didn’t have to focus on it completely and let it keep me from enjoying the day.
I went tubing in the creek, enjoyed the sounds of birds, the water rippling, along with the sights and smells, and felt even more relaxed.
The moral of this post is, while triggers can happen anytime and anywhere, and may very well knock us back a step or two, we have the ability to take back the situation. The work we do in our healing journey begins to pay us back just when we need it the most.
Don’t underestimate the power of the work you are doing, fellow survivor!