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What It Actually Means When Someone Has Been ‘Triggered’

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Long ago, I was having a lighthearted argument with my roommate and another friend. Eventually, I found myself feeling fed up, and I moved toward the front door in a semi-annoyed attempt to exit the apartment. By the time I’d gotten there, the two of them had stood up and were jokingly blocking me from leaving.

• What is PTSD?

What followed was 40 minutes of me crying on my bedroom floor, with two very bewildered friends. It felt like a classic TV scene where a character overreacts so massively it’s obvious to everyone but them that their response is not about whatever just happened. Back in the real world, I did personally know what this was and even why it was happening. Yet I couldn’t get my body or mind to stop responding.

I was triggered

“Triggered” has become a buzzword in recent years. It is frequently used in a way that is intended to make fun of or minimize the dislikes of others. In a similar fashion, folks often use it to describe their own reaction to encountering something they find upsetting, which is typically something frivolous or sarcastic (though not always).

I’m not interested in spending time on the discussion around whether or not it’s appropriate to use the word “triggered” in a casual way. I’m more concerned with folks understanding what it means to be triggered, for those of us who have “authentic” ones. I want to impart that this is a subject that deserves respect and kindness.

In my life, being triggered is not a humorous or silly thing. As my story above shows, it often involves big emotions and disruptive reactions. I also want to mention that this type of response happens quickly and is outside of my control. I see my responsibility in this as doing my best to be aware of my triggers and continually doing the difficult healing work so that I can attempt to regulate my reaction to them. The key word being “attempt.” I have complex PTSD for a reason, and I need to show myself compassion.

Years before this situation with my friends, a locked door, unfortunately, became a part of my trauma. I was attempting to flee from an interaction that had become dangerous, and came up against a locked door that had no business being that way. I knew it had been done intentionally, and finding this door unmovable was indeed traumatizing.

So yes, feeling like or actually being blocked from making an exit is now a trigger for me. Understanding this is helpful, but that doesn’t make it go away. I find it to be unpredictable and it rarely makes sense. There are situations and locations where based on what occurred, logically speaking it would make sense for me to feel triggered. Yet for reasons unknown, I am not. There are times when I expect a door to potentially be unmovable, like when I pull on the door of a probably closed business — and I feel a bit of fear rise in me. It’s not something that’s constantly on my mind, and I can go months or even years without having any type of reaction. As I’ve said, it’s not a straightforward thing.

My reactions to being triggered vary. In the situation with my friends, I ran in the opposite direction and cried. I was once unintentionally blocked in a room by a nurse, I cried and did a total freeze where I became unable to speak or move. In a similar scenario with a pair of doctors, I was able to ask them to take a seat when I felt cornered by them — which they obliged and I then felt better. These are just a few examples.

In these types of situations, I can feel afraid, on-edge, agitated or anxious. Sometimes, it’s a brief feeling that leaves as quickly as it came, and other times I can’t seem to shake it. I may potentially cry or freeze, and while I’ve yet to do so, I get the urge to run screaming from the building. There have been times I’ve been able to laugh it off or just have a fleeting thought about it before moving on.

I’ve especially noticed that while I can be triggered in this way by anyone, it more so seems to occur in settings where I already feel vulnerable, such as medical appointments. Due to this, I often attempt to let providers I see regularly know about this. And while it’s not always a pleasant conversation for me to have, it’s been helpful. It’s not necessary for me to explain the why to it and most are receptive to my request. I would much rather explain beforehand, and then never have it happen. Rather than have a big reaction and then find myself needing to explain when I’m already lost in a trauma response.

When I do experience a trigger it is upsetting and can put me into an emotional flashback. I may be able to go about my day or I may not. The struggle may be visible on the outside or it may remain internal. However, it ends up playing out, it is very real and it is not the same as being irritated by a new fashion trend.

After 40 minutes of crying on the floor, I tried to explain to my friends what had happened. They already knew I had experienced past trauma, but didn’t know about this trigger. In the end, it wasn’t a particularly difficult conversation. I was able to explain that the “me” part of me knew they didn’t have nefarious intentions, but the “trauma part” of me felt otherwise. They understood and were very kind about it all. They didn’t make fun or belittle me, and soon after we were busy with supper.

This was an ideal outcome and is a great example of how to respond with kindness and respect.

This is just a small glimpse into my experience with one of my triggers. I have more stories and other triggers I could talk about. I share this because I want people to respect the seriousness of avoiding triggers when we share them with you, which is not always easy to do and involves trust. If you also have triggers, they may present differently than mine, or you may have different thinking around them. That is OK, we are all unique! I share my story because I know there are folks out there who have the same or similar experience, who feel alone. You don’t need to.

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram.

Image via contributor

Originally published: May 28, 2021
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