Managing Triggers

Have you heard the word “trigger” used in the context of surviving abuse?  I was first exposed to this term about 10 years ago.  My abuse happened 40 years ago, so I lived with triggers for 30 years without understanding, or even having a name for them.

A trigger is anything that sets you off emotionally and activates memories of your trauma…triggered, we revert to the feelings and behaviors we had in the traumatizing situation ~Healing from trauma: A survivor’s guide understanding your symptoms and reclaiming your life.  As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have experienced many triggers.  I still do.  My abuser was my family pastor, so many of my triggers happen in church.

I used to think that if I did enough psychological work, if I tried hard enough, or if I just put enough distance between me and the abuse, that the triggers would die out…disappear.  I have come to realize that it is impossible to live an authentic life and also live completely without triggers.  Instead, I have started fo using on how to manage them.  For anyone else wanting to take this approach, I have listed a few ideas below that have worked for me.

Get To Know Your Triggers

I started to notice a few of my most common triggers were things that remind me of the church of my youth.  I attended a very traditional church, with a large sanctuary, red carpet, choir lofts and stained glass windows.  I now worship in a non-traditional setting,which feels much more comfortable to me.  My current church meeting in a school and has guest musicians, and a progressive theology.  But today, (which is what prompted me to think of writing this post), we were visited by a traditional choir, singing familiar hymns.  During the first hymn, the music evoked a memory of standing in church, signing and feeling so invisible.  Here were all my friends and family,signing joyfully, completely unaware that the monster standing behind the pulpit had raped me in the choir room just days beforehand. The memory triggered the same soup of feelings I had as a teenager in my home church.

Other common triggers for me at church are walking into an unfamiliar church, walking around non-sanctuary spaces in churches, red carpet and stained glass windows.  Some of these are very beautiful things, that I don’t necessarily was to live without (and sometimes can’t avoid) so I have examined them to find out what particular memories or feelings they evoke and now have responses I can say to myself when they trigger.  This has been enormously helpful to me in managing what happens during a trigger.

Make Ongoing – Not Final – Decisions About How To Care For Yourself During a Trigger

When I was triggered this morning, I considered leaving the service.  Sometimes this is the best decision for my well-being and I have done it.  Leaving immediately is one of the choices I have decided is perfectly acceptable.   So is waiting 5 minutes and deciding again.  So is stepping out in the hallway for a moment.  So is closing my eyes and taking deep breaths to get through it.  I decided to wait five minutes and decide again this morning.  During those five minutes, I checked out of the service mentally, and into myself.  I honored the feeling I was having as well as how I felt 40 years ago.  And, I decided to write this blog.  🙂  When I checked back into the service, I found something to celebrate.  Communion was served by all women in the church.  I decided to stay, but remained open to a different choice if things changed.

It turned out that the sermon today was about how powerful memories are and although it was not his focus, the pastor acknowledged that memories can evoke traumatic and overwhelming feelings.  It was soothing to my trigger to hear someone acknowledge that.  I’m glad I stayed.