When people experience childhood abuse, memories of it surface at unexpected times. Reminders of the abuse, called triggers, can appear suddenly without warning. Something in the present reminds survivors of their abuse. Suddenly you are hyper vigilant and on alert. You feel anxious, afraid, tense, want to get away, trapped, suffocated or helpless to name a few. Prior to this incident, you seemed OK. Because you are caught off guard, you believe “I must be going crazy,” or that this reaction does not make sense. It is often disturbing and frightening. Unless you know what your triggers are, they will continue to happen.
Let’s examine triggers, and how they present themselves.
SCENTS: As your partner approaches you to give you a kiss, you smell alcohol on his or her breath. Suddenly you are afraid, want to scream, and want this moment to stop. You go numb, waiting for the kiss to be over as you cannot understand this intense reaction. You do not remember that your abuser smelled of alcohol. As you go over it later in your mind you think, “My partner is just showing love. What is wrong with me?” Unless you know that alcohol on the breath is the trigger, you cannot change your reaction.
PEOPLE: A person with a similar physical trait to your abuser can be a reminder. For example, your abuser was bald; you are on an elevator with a bald headed man, and suddenly you want to run. Your breath is coming in short gasps, you start to panic and are desperate to get off the elevator. When you do not understand this trigger, your intense reaction will baffle you while you think, “What is wrong with me? Why am I acting so crazy?” These are common thoughts people have when they don’t understand their triggers.
THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS: Your boss shuts the door to his office while you are having a discussion. Shutting the door is the trigger to your abuse. You immediately think, “I can’t trust him,” and you become fearful. You feel trapped. You are scared and go into confusion not remembering what you want to talk about, only that you only want to get away. Outwardly, you seem present, but inwardly, you feel frightened. These triggers are powerful and can be obvious or subtle. Was it the way he looked at you while he closed the door? Was it his body language? Was it his smile or the look in his eyes? You may not realize something is a trigger until you have this reaction, which seems to come out of the blue, and sets up a pattern of fear. You may want to avoid these situations, but you will not be able to. When you continue to ignore them, you continue to live in the effects of your trauma. You have to learn your triggers in order to heal.
THINGS: You are in a pet store looking at fish in a tank. Suddenly, you find you cannot breath. You feel unsafe and need to leave the store. This reaction seems crazy because you do not remember staring at a fish tank in the room where you were sexually abused. Without understanding this trigger, you believe you are out of control. It is extremely unsettling, and the effects may linger for hours.
PLACES: You are walking down a hallway, which resembles a hallway to your childhood home where you were trapped by your abuser. Suddenly the walls seem to be closing in; you feel trapped and want to scream. It may only be a brief moment, but the loss of control is terrifying. You think you have to avoid long hallways because these hallways must be causing the distress. You don’t even think about the long hallway in your trauma.
FEELING SENSATIONS: A window is open; you feel the breeze coming through, which feels familiar. Suddenly you are trapped in fear. You cannot breathe, you feel tense throughout your body. You have to leave the room. You don’t remember that you were sexually abused in a room where you felt the breeze on your body. The sensation of the breeze is your reminder of your abuse. Without this knowledge, you will believe you are acting crazy and wondering what is wrong with you. While the reminders feel terrifying, the real terror was in your abuse that you already lived through in childhood. Are you willing to face your abuse, or will you continue to live in your unexpected triggers?
TV SHOWS, NEWS REPORTS, AND MOVIES: Seeing a similar trauma on TV or in a movie sets off symptoms from your abuse. A scene from a movie or a news report can create fear, discomfort, anxiety, and stress. It is the sudden unexpected grip of fear that feels out of proportion to what you are watching. It’s as if this is happening to you in the moment. You are on guard, holding your breath and feel as though you cannot move because you are in terror. When this feeling passes, you have no clue what set it off.
SOUNDS: You may be sitting in your living room comfortably watching TV. You hear a police siren in the distance. Now you are anxious, on alert, fearful, and holding your breath. You don’t remember the police coming to your house to stop the physical abuse you witnessed. You don’t have time to think, “I just heard a police siren.” The emotional distress is all encompassing. You are not aware that the siren is the trigger. We learn to block out our abuse because it is overwhelming and frightening. Triggers are clues to what we blocked out. Remember blocking out is not forgetting. In spite of all our attempts to forget, we never do.
TASTES: You were forced to eat vegetables at the dinner table. Your parent handled it in an abusive way by making you sit and eat something that was distasteful to you. Your complaints were ignored. You may have had to sit for a long time. As an adult, you cannot eat vegetables in spite of knowing they are good for you. You have to remember the abuse associated with eating vegetables, otherwise you are not free to make choices for yourself.
SITUATIONS: You are “stuck” in a line at the grocery store. Suddenly you are trapped believing you have to get out of line as if your life depended on it. You start to panic and try desperately to get control and feeling you want to get away. You know this reaction is out of proportion to your situation. It makes no sense. As soon as the line moves, you feel relief and can breathe. Sometimes you can talk your way out of your reaction, and other times you cannot and have to leave the store. Being stuck is a reminder of your childhood sexual abuse when you were trapped. This can happen in other situations, such as sitting in traffic. There is always a story behind every trigger. Knowing the story will help you feel sane; not knowing will create insanity.
ANNIVERSARIES: You were sexually abused in summer camp by a counselor. As summer time approaches, you become more anxious, you are not sleeping well, are fearful or irritable. You do not know the season is the trigger to your abuse. You love the summer season and cannot make sense of your reaction. The memories of your childhood abuse at camp will free you to enjoy your summer as opposed to living in the effects of your abuse.
Childhood abuse memories are so emotionally loaded that the smallest of reminders can be overwhelming. It is natural to protect ourselves from more of the trauma’s pain by avoiding it versus acknowledging and treating it. People say it was painful enough and what’s the point of reliving it by bringing it up? Once you live through childhood abuse, it is impossible to avoid its effects. It can show up in nightmares, general irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty in concentrating, hyper vigilance, difficulty working, falling asleep or staying asleep to name a few of the symptoms that occur. These symptoms continue to persist if not treated. They become a part of your everyday existence to the degree that you don’t realize they are an outgrowth of your abuse. You think you are avoiding it when, in reality, you are still living in its effects in one way or another.
Triggers are an opportunity to learn more about your memories of abuse. Remember you already lived through it and survived. Sanity comes when we stop running and seek the truth.