Triggers and some simple steps for self care

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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 40,000 times. I hope it will continue to be a source of support for many as we all pursue the challenging work of healing. As we continue to grow and learn as a community and as survivors we occasionally update the information in this post. It’s most current version can be accessed via this link.

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Triggers and some simple steps for self-care
By Christopher M. Anderson,
Executive Director, MaleSurvivor

Triggers – 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. Coverage of news stories about war, abuse, and other traumatizing events can easily give rise to these feelings.

It’s very likely that abuse survivors and their loved ones can be easily triggered and upset when exposed to all the bad news and threats to our safety that are out there. So what can we do to help limit the suffering that we feel when we get triggered?

In this post, I want to address 4 topics:

  1. 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 does being triggered feel like?

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 we triggers can seem to pile up and before we know it, we can feel overwhelmed for a period of time.

But, 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 intense; 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 some people call a “triggered” state.

For me, one of the hallmark signs that I’ve been triggered is a feeling of powerlessness. It can come as a sense of feeling overwhelmed, sometimes a kind of despondency. When these feelings come up, it is common – almost instinctive – to try and find some way to respond. Some of us will fight against these feelings and try to do “something” to try and regain a sense of efficacy and power. 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 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.

  1. 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 having a painful subject discussed. In therapeutic situations these feelings can be processed over time in a structured and safer environment. But most of us don’t their days in a psychologist’s office.

There is risk that negative emotions can be destabilizing. Actually, it’s also the case that positive emotions can disrupt us as well. The point to remember is that emotions are emotions. 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.

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

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 I strongly recommend finding a trained 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.

  1. 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 that 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, I think a healthier attitude is one that asks, “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. 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 work to incorpoate all, or as many as possible, of these suggestions 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.

  1. What can I do to make a difference?

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. 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.

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. The hard work of emotional healing is much harder without hope and support from others. As a friend or partner of a 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 discourages, 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. This is true even if you have made great progress in your healing.

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.