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Raising Awareness of Childhood Sexual Abuse Triggers

When abuse of any description is covered on TV it is usually followed by an announcement that if you have been triggered by the content of the programme call this phone number.  As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I often heard the term triggers without making the connection to what was happening in my own life.

Those of us who have suffered from flashbacks or strong emotional or physical responses in the most inopportune moments can really struggle to connect the dots.

Because triggers can be from the most innocuous things, it is not uncommon to become flooded by feelings of fear or panic that often appear to come out of the blue and without any warning or connection to anything that is happening at the time.

Add to that that once you get triggered the response felt can last for a second or linger for weeks. This can make it even more difficult for you to understand what the initial cause or trigger for your emotional or physical response was.

When I broke my ankle a few years back I began to have nightly panic attacks. I had an overwhelming feeling that I was going to die in the middle of the night. I really struggled to understand what was happening to me. I went around all day feeling panic and a physical pain in my chest and was constantly dreading the thoughts of bedtime.

I found myself delaying going to bed and only gave in when I was exhausted, even then I’d sit on the top stair for at least ten minutes telling myself that I was fine and had nothing to worry about. This carried on for weeks until I finally understood that I was being triggered by my dependency on my partner to do everything for me. I hated feeling helpless and out of control and all this brought me back to my childhood feelings of not being able to escape when my father came into my room at night to rape me.

What are Triggers? 

A trigger is anything that reminds you of your trauma. They can be extremely personal and can occur at any time. Triggers can be sounds, smells, tastes, touch, the tone in someone voice, hearing a word or phrase, seeing images, videos, an expression or a gesture.  It is likely that you may feel powerless to stop your immediate emotional or physical response to your triggers.

What Happens When you are Triggered?

A trigger can cause a strong or overwhelming emotional or physical response which can occur at any time. A typical response can be anger, rage, uncontrollable crying, physical pain, palpitations or breathlessness.

These triggered responses can transport you back to unconscious or stored memories or experiences of trauma. It is not unusual for you to feel confused or overwhelmed, and you can sometimes feel like you have been hit by a train.

Why are Victims of Abuse Vulnerable to Triggers?

Those of us who have experienced trauma as a child develop a variety of coping mechanisms that allow us to store memories or emotions away from our conscious minds.

When you engage one of your senses connected to your abuse, for instance in my case the sounds of someone eating loudly or crunching food can immediately transport me back to a memory of my father and how much I hated sitting at the table while he shoveled food into his mouth and dribbled its contents down his top.

Understanding just how you store memories can help to understand why these emotional or physical experiences can appear to have no apparent connection to what is happening in your life at the time when they occur.

Understanding Your Coping Mechanisms

I can honestly say I was shocked that something as simple as a broken ankle could throw be back into memories of my abuse.  When we were researching coping mechanisms for our book, ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ we discovered how as victims of abuse our memories are often fragmented, with this knowledge things began to fall into place. Understanding that it is not uncommon for emotions and facts to be stored in different parts of the brain helped me make the connections between triggers and emotional responses.

It is for this very reason that I understand the importance of victims understanding all of the many ways abuse impacts your life so that you can take control and save yourself from needless suffering and pain.

What to Do in the Moment?

I know it’s all well and good to say that you don’t have to carry on being triggered when you’re on the other side of the trauma. However, I have found a number of things helped me through the times I struggled the most.

  1. Firstly, talk to someone. Call a support person or friend to say how you are feeling and allow them to help you. It is not a sign of weakness to get help rather a sign of strength. Remember how you feel when you are in a position to help a friend it’s the same for them, so where possible call someone.
  2. Breath, I know how simple this can sound but it really can help. If you can bring your attention to your breath, breathing in for 10 and out for 10 and then reduce it to 9, 8, 7 and so on… it helps to not only distract you from the panic but calms you down and helps you sleep.
  3. Acknowledge your feelings be it upset of angry I know this also sounds easy but crying or getting angry is something I still struggle with. I can tell you that when I do make a conscious effort to express my feelings things improve.
  4. Repeat a Mantra/statement or phrase: By repeating a phrase in your head you distract yourself long enough to calm down and think more rationally. This can be anything like ‘Everything is Ok’ to ‘I am going to be fine’ it is not important what you say just the act of repeating the statement will work to get you out of your head.
  5. Try writing how you are feeling. Writing is a great way to express yourself freely.
  6. Drink water: because the body releases chemicals when you are anxious water can help release toxins and reduce the stress you are feeling.

Triggers for anyone who experienced any type of trauma can be very debilitating and frightening. I feel it is especially true for those of us who experienced childhood sexual abuse. If you understand how your memories work and how to access them, you will be better placed to identify and manage those things that trigger painful memories in the future.

Paula- 4th February 2018

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