The Roller Coaster Ride After Being Triggered
You’re having a normal conversation with family and friends. You’re laughing at each other’s jokes and talking about things that don’t matter when politics come up. No sweat, you’re in control. People agree to disagree all the time. The conversation starts out thoughtful but in time becomes heated, slowly at first. Next thing you know, the discussion has turned to victim-blaming and strong words and while you don’t want to be reacting to it, your heart is pounding. The room is turning sideways and you’re seeing stars. You’re dizzy, hot and you stand up to leave and room.
Through bated breath, you make a phone call to a person you trust. You’re having some trouble breathing now and your eyes sting with hot tears.
“I’m having a panic attack,” you manage between breaths.
From the other line, in a calming voice, you hear your trusted confidant say, “Breathe in. Hold for three seconds. Breathe out for three seconds. Wait three seconds. Breathe in for three seconds. Hold for three seconds…” until your shallow breathing begins to deepen a little. Then they say, “Look around you. Where are you?”
You finish your breath out and respond “I am in a parking lot.”
“Are there cars in the parking lot?” your friends asks.
“Yes,” you answer.
You begin to count. It’s a small parking lot. One. Two. Three. Four… You count twelve cars. “Twelve,” you say.
“Great. Is there a red car?”
“No, no red car.”
“Is there anything red around you?” they ask.
“There is a stop sign at the end of the driveway,” you say.
“What do you think that stop sign would feel like if you touched it?”
“Probably smooth, maybe cold.” Your heart rate has gone down now. You are breathing normally.
After a beat or two, your friend inquires, “Are you ready to tell me what happened?”
You realize that you are. You realize it’s actually a little cold outside despite being so hot before, and you wish you had a sweater. But you’re safe. And you’re breathing. And you are okay.
The definition of the noun “trigger” is “a small device that releases a spring or catch and so sets off a mechanism.” This paints an accurate picture of what psychological triggers do. They surprise us. They sneak up, catch us and set us off.
Survivors and victims of trauma experience triggers of all kinds. Some are words, some are actions, some are topics and some are scents. Knowing all of our triggers and attempting to prevent them from happening can cause even more anxiety, especially in a world we can’t control. This is why learning coping mechanisms that help you process your triggers are so vital.
The method described in the situation above is called “grounding” and has a scientific explanation. During an anxiety attack, blood rushes to your head and the part of your brain that fogs your ability to think clearly. By focusing on your senses — touch, sight, smell, sound, and taste — you are helping the blood in your brain to even back out in your brain again. This method can be done alone. For example:
If you can sense yourself becoming triggered or anxious, start breathing in counts and touch your shirt or pants. Think about the fabric. How does it feel? Is it soft or scratchy? Is it denim, or maybe cotton? If you’re touching your shirt, smell it. Does it smell like your fragrance from earlier? Vanilla? Mango? Or maybe detergent? Possibly some food from breakfast you hadn’t realized you spilled? The point is: Hone in on your immediate surroundings, ask yourself simple questions about those surroundings, and answer them. Use your senses to bring you back down.
And always, remember to breathe.
After the actual attack of anxiety has subsided, the lingering aftermath of it can still be strenuous. Here’s where you do your own personal self-care action. For me, it’s smelling my entire fragrance collection. I’m usually sitting by one or both of my animals when I do this, and I let them smell with me. It makes me laugh and reminisce and focus on something that brings me joy.
For you, it could be watching cat videos on Youtube. You know, the “Thug Lyfe” ones that show how boss cats are. Maybe it’s listening to a certain playlist, playing an instrument, watching Tik Toks or reading a book. I know people who destress by watching carpet cleaning videos or doing a load of laundry. Sometimes a bath or a full self-care routine is hard to fit in, so whatever it is that helps you to destress a little, try to make it a small task.
Finally, make sure you get a good night’s rest. Let anyone who might worry know you are hitting the hay early tonight, turn off your notifications, turn on your humidifier and if you must, take some melatonin. Do your best to get some sleep. Anxiety is exhausting, to say the least.
Take one more deep breath. You got this.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.