The word ‘trigger’ has become synonymous with mental health. Almost every day an article is published in the mainstream media that warns people with a history of self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression and/or abuse that the words that follow may be upsetting or provoke unwanted emotional re-actions.
The recent Oscar-winning film Silver Linings Playbook featured a prominent storyline concerning a song which sends Bradley Cooper‘s character spiralling into an emotional episode whilst counsellors the world over work closely with their patients to identify everything from smells, tastes, people, places and objects that can cause similar reactions in their clients.
I myself have written extensively of my triggers (from an A-Z of my primary emotional triggers to the potential reactions such triggers can cause) for I believe it’s important to know what triggers us so we know what we need to face along the long road to recovery.
But how do we turn such potentially damaging triggers into something we can approach safely and securely?
One technique involves reclaiming ownership of our triggers and changing their ending.
Step 01: Say how you feel
The first stage in this approach is to state how you feel upon being triggered. The best option would be to talk face-to-face with a close, trusted and supportive person (e.g. a friend, support worker or partner). With eye-contact, use direct “I” statements to voice exactly how you feel, such as “I feel anxious” or “I am petrified” so that both you and your support can understand exactly how you’re feeling.
If you do not have a support person and are undertaking this process by yourself you can use a mirror to make eye contact, just remember to speak how you are feeling aloud instead of just in your head as it’s important to make sure the emotions are heard.
For example, the song ‘Unexpected Song‘ is a powerful trigger not only for my PTSD and anxiety but also Vanessa (one of my voices). When I am triggered by this song I may say that “I feel guilty” or “this song has made me feel worthless, useless and a pointless waste of space”. Other things I could say may include “I feel like I’m about a throw up” or “This song picks me up and deposits me back in my abusive relationship. I can’t stop thinking about how insignificant I felt during that period”.
Step 02: Validate
The second stage in the process is to validate your emotions. It is perfectly acceptable to feel how you feeling. Feeling scared, isolated, guilty (or whatever emotion the trigger has made you feel) is perfectly normal and human. Allow yourself some compassion, understanding and self-love.
In the above example, I could validate my emotions by allowing myself to believe that the abuse was not my fault and, because I did nothing to deserve it, there is nothing I should feel guilty over. I could also give myself permission to show myself compassion for the abuse I experienced, that although I may think these feelings and that there’s nothing wrong with thinking them, they are untruthful descriptions of who I am.
Step 03: Grounding
The third stage in the process is the grounding stage. This is where you bring yourself back into your body, mind and present from a heightened emotional state. Ways in which you could ground yourself include; focussing on five things you can see/feel/touch/smell (focussing on your primary senses), tapping a tune on a body part that you find comforting (perhaps a song from childhood or happy memory) or partaking in a muscle relaxation exercise (such as progressive muscle relaxation.)
For example, to ground myself after validating my feelings following hearing ‘Unexpected Song’ I could sit someone safe and speak aloud five things I can see (carpet, table, radio, voices workbook and tobacco) following by five things I can hear (neighbours talking, the news on the radio, a jack hammer, someone shouting at his partner, rumbling stomach) followed by five things I can feel (my bottom on the chair, my foot tapping the floor, my back against the chair, sweaty palms, my jeans on my legs) and then return to things I could see, only this time stating four before repeating each step until I have reduced it to only one thing I can see/hear/feel; the idea being focusing only on my senses will remove me from the heightened state, grounding me back in the present.
Step 04: Re-Empower
The final stage in the process is to find a way to re-claim the trigger; to change the ending, so to speak. This stage is going to require commitment, patience and some trial-and-error, as finding a way to successfully re-empower the trigger may take some time. The idea is to take your trigger and do something that changes it’s ending; so that when you encounter the trigger in the future it is this ending you recall instead of the painful memories that were once associated with it.
For example, a possible way I could reclaim ‘Unexpected Song’ would be to inhale helium gas and then sing the song as if I were a chipmunk. The hope being that I would replace the painful associations of the song with that of laughter, fun and merriment.
Obviously, this stage is going to be unique to the individual. It may take several different ideas before you can re-claim the trigger, hence trialing different ideas until you have found something that works. It is also recommended this stage be undertaken in the presence of a support person due to the painful memories it may evoke.
Due to my isolated nature I’ve yet to implement this technique myself, but hope to deploy it as I head into battle against my most recent trigger. How I shall re-empower that particular trigger I’ve yet to work out but, if successful, I hope to tackle some of my other triggers (such as the example above or my intolerance of a certain boy wizard) using this approach.
Rest assured, should I ever sing random musical numbers after inhaling helium I’ll do my utmost to post an audio! :p