Some things you can do if you are feeling triggered... MaleSurvivor provides world-class resources like this website and discussion forum community to men who have been sexually abused and their loved ones free of charge. Every year over 100,000 users come to this website, accessing more than 2 million pages of content.
In 2012, I drafted the following article for our discussion forums with assistance of a number of other survivors and therapists who are members of the MaleSurvivor family. In that time it has proven to be one of the most popular posts on MaleSurvivor's website, having been read over 50,000 times. I hope it will continue to be a source of support for many as we all pursue the challenging work of healing.
If the information in this post, or anything here on the website, has been helpful to you, please make a donation to MaleSurvivor today. If everyone who read this post made just one $10 donation, MaleSurvivor's financial future would be solidified for years to come. Thank you.
--Chris Triggers and some simple steps for self-care
By Christopher M. Anderson,
Executive Director, MaleSurvivorTriggers
- Sometimes they can feel like they are all around us. They are those moments that can take a good day and turn it upside down in a second. Feeling powerless can be a major trigger for many survivors. So can the feeling that your voice is not going to be heard, or being told that your ideas and opinions are not important. News about politics, war, abuse, and other traumatizing events can also easily give rise to these feelings.
While no one is immune from being impacted by triggers, abuse survivors and their loved ones can be more at risk of being triggered, and can often struggle with more severe reactions to triggering events. So what do we, whether we are survivors or not, need to know in order to limit the suffering we experience when we get triggered?
In this post, I want to address 4 topics:
1. What are triggers and what does being triggered feel like?
2. What can I do if I feel I'm becoming triggered?
3. What can I do to reduce the chances that I will be triggered?
4. What can I do to make a difference? 1. What are triggers and what does being triggered feel like?
In order to limit the harm we experience when we are triggered, it's helpful to actually know what triggers actually are and what being triggered feels like. When we can put a name on something, we can better understand it. When we better understand something, we are better prepared to exert some control over it.
A trigger is anything that can give rise to a feeling of being unsafe. It can be a sound, a smell, something we see or read that "triggers" the alarm system we have within our minds that tells us we are at risk. A major challenge for survivors is that anything in our environment can be a trigger because we have been primed by our experiences to be hyper-vigilant to the potential for being harmed. While that may sound scary, when we take a step back we can better understand that the issue isn't that the world is full of threats around every corner.
As we learn more about how the brain processes information, we know that as human beings we have inherited an extraordinarily sensitive threat detection system. Believe it or not that is a good thing - without it we wouldn't be here! Our ancestors would likely have fallen prey to any number of dangers in the past. But what evolved as a primary defensive system to keep us alive in far more dangerous and uncertain times can also be a problem when we are unable to find ways to shut the alarm system off.
Getting triggered does not give rise to a simple, uniform set of symptoms that can be easily labeled. Everyone (survivor or not) has their own blend of emotions, and oftentimes different people have different reactions to the same event. (E.G. - Some people like scary movies, some hate them). Likewise, there's no clear time limit on how long one needs to feel affected in order to know you have been triggered. Sometimes we can be triggered in one moment and be able to let it go and return to "normal" the next. Other times our triggers can seem to pile up and before we know it, we can feel overwhelmed.
In general, if you find yourself struggling with more negative emotions than usual (anger, sadness, anxiety, bitterness, etc.); if the intensity of these emotions seems especially strong; if you are noticing that things that normally do not bother you are becoming stressors (e.g. maybe you are more irritable in traffic than normal); and/or if you find yourself pushing others away and wanting to be alone: these can all be signs that you might be in what can be called a "triggered" state.
One of the most common triggers is the experience of powerlessness
. In response to powerlessness, it is common - almost instinctive - to try and find some way to respond. Some of us will fight and try to do something
to try and regain a sense of efficacy and power. Sometimes these efforts can lead us to act aggressively towards others, sometimes we can engage in behaviors that are harmful and self-destructive, sometimes we may turn to addictive substances or behaviors that provide us some sense of comfort. Some of us will retreat in a sense, and fall back into an almost passive acceptance of these feelings.
There is no right or wrong response in these moments, so long as our actions do no lead us to harm ourselves or abuse others. But it is important to recognize that the more that we can simply acknowledge the feelings that we are experiencing at any given moment without allowing them to dictate our behaviors, we are taking a step towards taking control back from the things that trigger us. 2. What can I do if I feel I'm becoming triggered and/or feeling overwhelmed?
Anger, sadness, bitterness, and resentment are all normal reactions to painful experiences and memories. In therapeutic situations these feelings can be processed over time in a structured and assisted manner. But most of us don't spend our days in a psychologist's office, and sometimes these feelings can overwhelm us. The truth is many of us experience triggers multiple times a day. As survivors, we sometimes can feel as though we can't get away from triggers.
There is a risk that negative emotions can be destabilizing. (Actually, it's also the case that positive emotions can disrupt us as well.) An important point to remember is that emotions are emotions - our feelings are internal reactions and responses to external signals. One thing that can help us to get to a place where we can better deal with triggers is to try to see that being triggered is one of the ways that our bodies and minds tell us that it is time for some serious self-care.
It can help us get to that place by better recognizing what we feel when we are triggered. This is a question only you can answer for yourself, however here are some signs that you might be feeling triggered:
you are having strong emotional swings
feeling out of balance and unable to focus on tasks
if you find yourself more irritable and moody than normal
you find it more difficult to let little things go
you feel powerless or overwhelmed
you are experiencing more intense emotions (good or bad) than normal
you are on "high alert" for threats to you or your loved ones
you are struggling with impulse control
If you think you may be in a trigger state, it's important to remember a few things. First, emotions are just emotions, they are not indicators of who you are or whether you are a good person or a bad person. If you feel yourself getting triggered regularly and do not have a therapist to process these feelings it is strongly recommend that you find a trained mental health professional to speak with, even for just a session or two.
MaleSurvivor has a resource directory
that is a great resource for finding professional mental health counsellors local to you. And if you do not see a therapist in your area listed, contact your insurance provider or the nearest rape crisis center and ask for help finding someone to speak to.
As always, if you are in severe crisis or considering self harm and have no one else to speak to call your doctor, emergency services (such as 911), or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
or the Samaratins.3. What can I do to reduce the chances that I will be triggered?
This may be a frustrating thing to read, however the truth is no matter what we do, there will be times where we feel triggered. There are simply too many things happening all around us, and too many things that can impact us emotionally and set off certain alarms in our minds. Therefore, a more effective question is, "How can I reduce the negative impact of triggers on me?"
One of the most important things in this respect is to understand that habits are built over time, through consistent and proactive practice. The behaviors that we engage in regularly impact how we see ourselves, and have a great deal of influence in how we react and respond to unexpected events and triggers. Therefore, one of the most important things we can do is to remember that just as there are things we can do to maintain good physical health, so too are there things we should do regularly to maintain good emotional health.
Especially if you are a survivor of significant trauma or abuse in the past, it is very important to connect to sources of hope and support, and to exercise "exquisite" self-care during high stress times. Here are a few tips along these lines: Ensure you are getting proper rest
. This is especially a time to make sure you are getting enough sleep every day. Try to exercise regularly and maintain as regular a schedule of self-care as possible.
Mediation, yoga, and working out are all excellent ways to disconnect from all these stories and get re-centered on the most important person - you. Maintain a healthy diet
Again, this is even more important in times of high stress and anxiety. Simply avoiding junk food and eating a few more fruits and vegetables can make a huge difference to how you feel physically. As you feel better in your body, you will feel better in your mind. Moderate, or eliminate, use of alcohol and other mood altering substances.
If you find yourself self-medicating to a greater degree at this time, it is especially important to discuss that with your doctor or therapist. And please, inform your doctor if you have altered in any way your use of prescriptions. Begin a mindfulness practice
More and more research is illuminating the health and wellness benefits of incorporating a regular practice of mindfulness into our lives. There are many free resources in communities and online that can help you start a regular practice. Here are two that are affiliated with respected University research programs UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
and Online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (Note: I've chosen these because they are affiliated with University-based healthcare and research programs and free to access. Neither MaleSurvivor nor I have any relationship or derive any compensation with these programs or their creators.) Perhaps most importantly DO something FUN
Regardless of whether you are a survivor or not, there is a part inside all of us that needs to be allowed to have some fun. Do a silly dance for no reason, sing a song that you love (whether you can sing or not), for example. And if you have children, make sure to make time for them and play a game or go for a walk.
The more that we can remember to do all of these as a matter of habitual practice in our normal life, the easier it will be to turn to these behaviors in times of high stress and anxiety. It's also very possible that some of these self-care behaviors may actually help to build up parts of our brains that can help us become more resilient to triggers and traumas over time - even if we are survivors of severe trauma and abuse in the past. 4. What can I do to make a difference?
Over time, the more we progress we make on our healing journey, the less likely it is that triggers and traumas will overwhelm us. Therefore if you are at the beginning of your healing journey, it's important to know that it is ok to invest time and energy into yourself. That is a concept that men don't hear often enough. There are many sources of toxic stigma that tell men that we are supposed to put ourselves last. Often that is a recipe for disaster.
One of the most important causes we can put our energy into is our own emotional healing. It's important to realize that no one else can actually heal us. The work of emotional healing requires proactive effort on our part. At the same time, however, it's important to know that rarely does anyone heal all on their own. Therefore the best strategy as a survivor is to find ways to actively engage in the work of healing while getting support from friends, loved ones, and skilled professionals who can all add their support and insights into our lives.
The flip side to this is understanding that there is nothing that we can do as individuals to "heal" or "fix" anyone else. This isn't to suggest that we are powerless to help others - quite the opposite in fact. Again, the hard work of emotional healing is much harder without hope and support from others. As a friend or partner of another survivor, our role is to be a source of compassionate support. We can do this by offering hope to the people we care about that healing is possible, and encouraging and empowering them to know that there are resources, like MaleSurvivor, that they can turn to to get the help and guidance they need in order to do the hard work of healing.
Of course, simply telling survivors to focus on self-care and not try to "do something" about any given problem can also be counterproductive. If the source of many triggers is a feeling of powerlessness, then it's only logical that stopping someone from working to make things better for others or fighting for some cause they believe in can actually reinforce the idea that we are still powerless. More and more research
is showing that happiness is increased not by focussing on what we give ourselves, but rather by what we give OF ourselves.
Therefore sometimes, in addition to making sure we engage regularly in self-care, we may feel called to do something about larger problems. It is important, however, not to allow that to become a source of pressure or additional stress that can lock you in a feedback cycle, where you feel triggered, try to do something, get frustrated, feel triggered again, and get locked in an unhealthy cycle. Again, if being triggered often is a result of feeling powerless, it's important to acknowledge that many of the problems we face (abuse, political turmoil, social inequities, etc) may in fact be so complex that it may not be possible any single person to really "solve" the issue. Therefore, it is good to see that it may not be necessary to fix the problem to regain a sense of our own power. Simply finding something positive that we can put our energy into, or finding ways to join a community of people working together to make concrete, positive change in their communities can help us feel empowered again.
Before you take on any cause or commit to becoming involved in advocacy remember:
If you feel an overwhelming urge to confront someone who you feel is responsible for causing you to feel upset: stop.
First go for a cleansing walk. Take a walk around the block or get up from your desk and go get a glass of water. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths and try to focus on something calming - a color you like or the sound of ocean waves, for instance.
Try to spend at least an hour each day with the TV, Internet, and radio (if it's tuned to the news) off. Find something else to focus on in your life. Sometimes the most effective way to insert more compassion into the world is to make sure you are doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.
If you are moved to become involved in some advocacy work, here are some helpful things we can do:
o Spend some time doing some volunteer work for a community organization, preferably doing something wholly unrelated to sexual abuse issues. There are a lot of people and organizations that need help and are being ignored as our attention is focused on these matters. Volunteer to improve a local park or donate what you might have spent on going out for a meal to a school. Alternatively you could give some time to an animal shelter, or donate blood, just to name a few examples.
o If you are not able to participate in physical work for any reason, you can still do good work. What we do with our voices are oftentimes as, if not more, important than what we do with our hands. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper (if you are in a large city, find your neighborhood newspapers). Note: I don't recommend trying only to send letters or op-eds to the national media outlets; the likelihood of your message getting through is much higher on the local level. It is also important to remember that oftentimes not getting a response, and/or not having our letter accepted for publication can intensify our feelings of frustration. Remember that the act of sending out a message should not be to get a response, but rather to feel empowered by expressing yourself. Keep any letters you write short (here is a good resource that lists the suggested word counts at major papers) and try to focus on statements of support for survivors who are testifying in court, and/or that resources such as MaleSurvivor are available to provide support for healing, and/or that healing is possible for every single survivor.
o As an alternative to writing oped and articles - write an email, or better yet handwrite a card or letter to someone who has been directly impacted by trauma, abuse, and violence in some way. If you are unsure of who you might write a letter to, contact your local VA hospital to ask if there is a way to anonymously send in letters of support and gratitude to the vets they treat.
o DO PLANT SEEDS
Don't waste your energy trying to convince someone they are wrong, save it to keep doing what you know is right. Instead of trying to convince people that they are wrong or that you are right, try to make your goal just to be heard. When we share our thoughts, stories, and perspectives we should know that sometimes all we might be able to do is plant a seed for change. And if you feel that you haven't been heard, don't become discouraged, sometimes other people have too much going on in their minds to be able to hear what anyone else is really saying.
Lastly, here are 3 things that I strongly caution you against doing. DON'T engage in debates or battles over the Internet
in chat rooms, discussion boards, or comment pages. There are people out there who will not believe you, who will attack you for their own reasons, and who are just generally rude and immature. Fighting with them will not help you feel better. DON'T disclose in other public forums
Except, of course, for the MaleSurvivor forums few places online are a community of healing where you are likely to receive the support you deserve and need after disclosing. Sometimes in the heat of a contentious conversation survivors will disclose without thinking about whom they disclosing to, and what the impacts of making a disclosure in that venue will be. Many therapists suggest thinking carefully about whom and when to disclose. I think this is good advice, not because we should be ashamed or fearful of sharing our stories, but because we need to realize that, sadly, we still have a long way to go to create a society where men's disclosures of abuse can be expected to be met with compassion, tolerance, and support.
And maybe most importantly: DON'T allow yourself to fall into despair
. As humans, most of us have a negativity bias. It's often far easier for us to fixate on the things that are bad and broken in our world. But, perhaps now more than ever, it's critically important for us to realize that even when things seem unjust and unfair around us, we have the power to make a positive difference. I was in the courtroom as an observer during much of the Jerry Sandusky trial. Being there taught me a powerful lesson. After seeing and hearing the first two survivors speak with such courage and bravery I can tell you that bad people do not always win. There are other examples of wonderful and inspirational acts of courage and compassion all around us. Make the choice to be a source of light to others. It does make a difference. Again, if the information in this post, or anything here on the website, has been helpful to you, please make a donation to MaleSurvivor today. If everyone who read this post made just one $10 donation, MaleSurvivor's financial future would be solidified for years to come.