Reclaiming Triggers

by Sara Lambert

Many of the triggers which disrupt the lives of survivors are apparently innocuous, everyday items - for example, certain colours, animals, music, people (eg men with facial hair). Because of this, it is crucial that survivors find ways to deal with these triggers so they are not constantly vulnerable to flashbacks, dissociation, or having a panic attack.

There are a number of steps survivors can take to move towards disarming and reclaiming the triggers in their lives.

  1. Identify the trigger. This is the hardest part. You may not realise you have been triggered until long after the trigger has left your environment, and so have to trace back through the minute details of your day. Also, for many survivors, the attempt to discover the trigger may set off further dissociation, especially if it is a cult-designed cue which has been protected by programming. The long-term solution is to keep a record of your changing moods and dissociative experiences, including what was happening, and where you were, at the time. If you are diligent about this, a pattern will eventually emerge and the triggers will become more apparent to you. You can also ask friends, partner, therapist, and family to help you with this.
  2. Associate the trigger with its original event. This will help you understand the specific response you have and reinforce for you the fact that your "crazy spells" infact have meaning, in terms of being automatic responses to echoes of past trauma.
    It might not always be possible, or even a good idea, to track down memories in this way, especially if you are still not ready to know the story of what happened to you as a child, or if you are still intensely programmed to self-harm or suicide upon memory recovery. This trigger association work is not essential to the healing process, providing you are willing to accept that certain objects/events have a powerful negative effect on you, "for whatever reason". However, the more information you have, the more powerful you can be.
  3. Begin desensitizing yourself to the trigger. Do this very slowly, remembering at all times to keep yourself safe and not push too hard against your defensive barriers. Use a balance of logic (eg, this is just a spoon, it can not hurt me on its own) and physical relaxation techniques like deep breathing (to forestall an automatic panic attack). If you can, reassociate the trigger with positive things. Above all, remain in control of the situation. Do not feel that you have to reclaim the trigger quickly, completely, or even at all.
    The following example from Caryn StarDancer (SurvivorShip 1990) describes such a gentle process:
    "I desensitized the colour red by having the inside of a closet, in which I kept my stereo, records, and most loved books, painted red. I could prepare myself to reinforce these positive associations with the colour before I opened the door to the closet. I could keep the door open or shut, well or poorly lighted. This gave me a sense of control. Next, I made pillows out of carefully selected, beautifully soft fabrics, and moved the colour out into my room. Finally, I was able to fully accept the colour back into my life on my terms."
  4. Choose what new role the trigger will have in your life. Remember, this is all about you creating for yourself the kind of life you would like to have. You may want to be able to cope with triggering items, or even embrace them wholeheartedly. Sometimes you will have little choice about this. For example, I used to be profoundly triggered by helicopters. Then I moved into a house directly beneath the main emergency helicopter route, and had them flying overhead at least ten times a day. If I didn't work to disarm that trigger, I would have been perpetually a blithering wreck.

On the other hand, you may decide that some triggers aren't worth the workload - you don't actually have to eat certain foods, wear certain types of clothing, or listen to classical music. It's your choice.

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If you are going to work with ritual abuse survivors, you must also get educated if you want to be effective. And you must learn to be humble. Trauma survivors do not need to be around ignorant, modern-day Pharisees. Survivors in pain need people who will connect with them on an emotional level, get right down in there where they are, and listen. --Kathleen Sullivan