It was a good day. We were in the Christmas season and I was excited about, what was for me, a creative gift idea for my husband. My plan was to gather some pictures of a recent vacation and put together a photo album to commemorate a fresh start with new memories. Creative and inexpensive! It was a win, win.
We were several years into recovery and things were going well. My husband was working his program and I was no longer riding a wave of emotions. And then it hit me unexpectedly, like the sudden attack of a carjacker in the middle of the day. I had asked to see my husband’s phone to retrieve some vacation photos. Before recovery, he guarded his phone like it was the Hope diamond. As a part of recovery, in his attempt to be transparent and rebuild trust, he offered for me to see his phone anytime I wanted. This day, he hesitated and said he was using it at the moment. In a matter of seconds, I went from feeling happy to feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
What happened? It is called a trigger. A trigger is something that cues or sets off a physical and/or emotional response in the body and draws you back to a past experience or memory. It can produce many of the same effects as the original trauma. How do we deal triggers? Here are four aspects to dealing with triggers: identify, avoid, prepare and manage.
Trigger work begins with identifying the source. There are internal triggers such as thoughts, fears and insecurities. And there are external triggers like places, people and things. Try to pay attention to changes in your mood. Notice a sudden feeling of sadness or anger. Look for physical changes such as increased heart rate, upset stomach, or muscle tension. When you notice these things, stop and note what you just saw, heard, smelled or thought. Many triggers are obvious. Others take more investigation to make the connection. It may be helpful to categorize your triggers as either internal or external, and avoidable or unavoidable. Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can begin working to address them.
The most obvious way to deal with a trigger is to avoid it. If going to the beach and seeing beautiful, scantily clad women elicits negative thoughts and feelings, don’t go there. If watching certain programs that frequently portray situations of infidelity is potentially disturbing, don’t watch them. If driving past an establishment where your spouse might have acted out causes you anxiety, take an alternate route. Avoidance, when possible, is a good strategy, especially in early recovery. But what about the triggers that can’t be avoided?
Prepare, in advance, for how you will respond to unavoidable triggers. If you wait until you are in the situation, your emotions may be so overwhelming that you won’t respond in a healthy way. You may not be able to control being exposed to certain triggering situation or thoughts, but you can control what happens next. It is more difficult to have victory over the powerful emotions elicited by triggers if you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, so practice good self-care. Write out a favorite or helpful scripture. Make a gratitude list. Think of your favorite uplifting song or praise chorus. Think of a person who knows your situation that you can call when you are feeling triggered. At a time when you are rested and relaxed, imagine a thought or scenario that has caused you to feel uneasy in the past. Practice responding in some of the ways mentioned above.
Finally, manage the triggers as they come. Use some of the techniques already listed. Another option is to distract yourself by doing something else. Go for a walk, organize a closet or do some other project. “When thought becomes excessively painful, action is the finest remedy” (Salmon Rushdie, Midnight’s Children).
Remind yourself that though the trigger may bring back the feelings or memories associated with the original trauma, it is not the same as the betrayal. Triggers are like a form of time travel, transporting your mind to the past. Bring yourself back to the present. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Remember what you were doing before the trigger hit and focus on resuming that.
Unfortunately, triggers are the haunting residuals of betrayal. But you do not have to be powerless in the face of them. Having your own healthy recovery plan is essential and a key component is a strategy for identifying, avoiding, preparing for, and managing triggers. If you need help with this, contact us. We are here for you. There’s Still Hope.