Keeping a Handle on the Trigger

I haven’t written in while. It’s not that life has been quiet but that it’s racing past me. School has started for the year, and I can’t believe the summer is over. Vacations and work and counseling and memories and still taking days one at a time.

I am moving forward, healing, having more positive days than bad. But I’ve learned over the past months that it doesn’t matter how good my day is or how peaceful I feel or how long it’s been since I felt sad, I am still susceptible to the trauma of my past. It hides in words and faces and actions and tones and songs and voices. And, often, it’s only a breath away from being triggered.

I recently discovered the irretrievable loss of several documents as the result of my computer crashing last spring. I thought I’d managed to save all my files. It was frustrating and saddening. A friend tried to ease my disappointment by offering some advice: he told me to learn from what happened. He suggested I take a “lesson” from it. It was a harmless suggestion, merely encouragement to choose a different perspective. But it felt more like a slap that night.

I argued that I’d done nothing wrong, that I’d saved my documents, and that my computer had crashed on its own. He tried to explain it again, that he wasn’t accusing, but he used the word “lesson” a second time. I felt the shame go through me hot and fast and knew “lesson” was the word that had triggered it. I told my friend to stop using the word, shouted it. I needed to get away from the word and the feelings it caused. I needed to stop the physical reaction.

I started crying and I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking, panicking, afraid of I didn’t know what. The shame felt heavy and demoralizing. My friend became angry that I’d yelled, but I fought the urge to apologize. I focused on what was happening inside me, on stopping it before it was out of control.

Preventing, stopping, and coping with emotional and physical reactions to shame is something my counselor and I had been talking about less than a week before this happened. My assignment as I left that day had been to think about how I react to triggers, what triggers me, and how I calm down after being triggered. So how to manage my shame reaction that night was already something I’d been thinking about, and I realized through all the emotions, that I already had the skills and resources to calm myself down.

I started taking deep breaths, counting through them, a technique called box breathing. In for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four more. Repeat. And some time ago, I’d put together a shame first aid kit, with things to remind me that I’m lovable and a good person and worthy: a letter I wrote to myself saying these exact things, pictures of people who love me unconditionally, a rose quartz to remind me to love myself. There were also things for soothing and calming: lavender scented soap, notecards with breathing exercises, something soft to touch.

I pulled my first aid kit out that night and used it to calm myself down. I read the letter and did the breathing and looked at my friends’ faces and I relaxed. Then reason took over again: I’d done nothing wrong—I had nothing to be ashamed of. What my friend had said was just words.

After I was thinking rationally, I considered why the word “lesson” had triggered the reaction it did. It was simple: remarking that someone should “learn her lesson” is shame speak. Someone somewhere used those words to shame me.

I still didn’t apologize to my friend, but instead I explained what happed. I told him that when I shouted, I was feeling traumatized and attacked, and that I did what I needed to do to protect myself, to stop the panic and shame from breaking me down any further. I did what I’ve been slowly training myself to do. I understood that I was having a trauma reaction, and I identified the cause and got away from it. Then I used breathing and self-encouragement and loving myself to calm down, and I did it on my own. No one needed to remind me or guide me or encourage me. I took care of myself. A little less than a year ago, a trauma reaction took three days to overcome. This time, it took me thirty minutes.

I’m learning. I’m healing. I don’t do it gracefully, not yet at least. I shouted at one of my closest friends. I cried. I needed my shame first aid kit. But I did get through it.

I’ve grown from the experience. And even more importantly, I recognize what I’ve accomplished personally over the last year and a half. I know without a doubt today that I’m worthy, that I’m a good person, that I’m lovable. I know I deserve to have good, happy things in my life. I know that when the bad days find me, when the triggers are beyond my control, when I feel broken, I have everything I need to come back and be stronger than before. I believe everyone does.

If you’re doubting or afraid or ashamed, take a few deep breaths.  Look inside of you. Love yourself. Recognize that you’ve come this far. You did it. You are strong too.

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