What I’m talking about when I talk about being triggered

For the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve avoided explicitly referencing my own personal experiences of triggers. I do this because I don’t have any diagnoses pertaining to the things I experience as triggers, which means I don’t have a name for what is being triggered. I can’t say that my PTSD was triggered, because I don’t think I have PTSD, for instance. And to some extent, I think it is rhetorically important to be able to what is being triggered when we talk about triggers, so that people stop hearing “I felt uncomfortable” when someone says “this triggered me”.

When I say I was triggered by something, I don’t mean I felt uncomfortable. I don’t mean it made me unhappy. I mean it caused a psychological and bodily reaction that made it impossible for me to function in the ways I normally do, to be effective in my life, and to experience positive emotions for hours or days afterward. And I want to take a minute today to talk about exactly what it feels like to be in my head and my body when something happens that triggers me around my own trauma.

So, here are some of the phrases I have been writing down to describe my experience to myself at times I have been triggered:
– In the moment, (when I first read or hear a triggering phrase – it is usually words with me), it feels like an electric shock running through my entire body. Everything freezes, and the rest of the world kind of just goes away. My body responds as if I am being attacked, as if I am under threat, and I freeze. Because that is what I do.
– Then I just shut down. The world stops seeming real. I am no longer inhabiting most of my body; I’ve just sort of taken up shop somewhere behind my eyes where I can keep an eye on things without having to actually feel any of it. I am watching the world through a window, on a screen.
– When things are particularly bad, my disconnection from my body can extend to the point where I feel like the parts of my body aren’t even connected to each other any more. I can’t integrate them into a whole, and it seems like a kind of miracle that I can coordinate all of these foreign parts to do something as complicated as walk across a room. It feels like at any moment the whole thing could just fall apart.
– It can be very hard to talk. I can’t find words at all some of the time, unless I am following a routine script. I can handle simple work conversations that I have every day. I can talk about the weather or whatever. But my voice sounds like a robot inside my head, and I can’t shake the feeling that it is only by sheer luck that the sounds coming out of the mouth that I am monitoring but don’t really feel in control of are approximately what I wanted them to be.
– Often, I feel mild vertigo, or like I am about to faint. I know that I’m not going to faint, but the ways in which I feel not-quite-in-control of my body, and the way that thoughts start coming through my head slowly (One. Word. At. A. Time.) feels a lot like the moment before passing out. Except it just goes on, and on.
– I feel like I might forget to breathe. Or forget how to breathe. Or simply that all of the sensory data that is inundating me will suffocate me.
– Throughout all of this, I find it very hard to actually keep paying attention to the world around me. Literally everything in the whole world seems like too much. Too much light, too much sound, too many people, too many demands. If I am lucky enough to be at home, I just won’t bother. A huge proportion of my mental energy during this entire process is trying to force me to look at the memories that have been brought up by the trigger, and I will have to do it eventually. What this looks like from the outside is me completely zoning out, staring into the middle distance, and not moving at all for an indeterminate period of time. It could be minutes, or it could be hours. I can’t even tell you what my brain is doing when this happens, and I am always surprised by how much time has passed when I snap out of it.

I have gotten better, over the years, at making these episodes shorter than they used to be. I know what things help to get me out of the loops I get caught in, and I have ways of getting myself to re-inhabit my own body. But I still get triggered on a reasonably regular basis. And I am more vulnerable to being re-triggered in the days following a recent trigger episode. And even when I am not re-triggered, the experience of having been triggered creates extra vigilance around the people, spaces, and communities where I have been triggered before.|

Also, I am very, *very* good at hiding most of this from the people around me. They will notice that I am not quite myself, maybe, if they are people I generally feel safe with.

It is so fucking exhausting. And it is absolutely real. And it is not about my fucking ‘discomfort’.

6 comments

  1. This is really important for people who don’t experience this to read. And when I used to experience similar reactions, that’s exactly what it was like for me, too – a loop. It was like I was stuck inside of that reaction and those feelings and I couldn’t just shake them off – and I agree, it’s horribly exhausting. And I had people telling me I was being ‘dramatic’ or that I just needed to calm down. Um, yeah, not how it works. I’m sorry that you experience this, but I’m glad you wrote about it so candidly. I feel like it’s important for people to understand the difference between “I’m uncomfortable” and “I’ve been triggered”.

  2. Are you familiar with the word “dissociation”? Because that sounds like what you are describing, if I understand right.

    For myself, when I talk about triggers, it can be different things that are triggered, but even when it’s something relatively mild, it’s still not just being “uncomfortable”. It can be anything from having a panic attack or suicidal thoughts to thinking about hurting myself or being very upset. I can’t quite pin down what I mean by “very upset”, except that it means a disproportionate emotional reaction of the sort that leads me to avoid reading things I would otherwise be interested in when I am in a bad emotional state, because I know it will hit too close to home and make me very upset. This feels like a circular definition. To clarify, I’m not talking about stuff like getting mad when reading about the newest horrible thing that Trump said, I’m talking about the sort of emotional reaction I sometimes have to being exposed to transphobia when I’m not prepared to deal with it or am not in a good mental state to begin with (e.g. when I am going through a depressive episode).

    1. Yes! I mostly just refer to all of this as dissociation. Just for the purposes of this post I wanted to actually describe the experience rather than just naming it <3
      But yes, I also feel you on the circular definition of upset there.

  3. Hm, this is quite interesting to read, since I feel I process things in a very different manner. When something bad happens, or when something occurs that dredges up past trauma, usually not much occurs at first: I think nothing of it. It is later–a few hours or a day–that it starts to take over my life. Sleeplessness, recurring thoughts, bad dreams, a feeling of physical illness and bodily disconnection. I have found it hard to consider what I experience “trauma” or “triggering” for that reason: it feels like it should be far more sudden in onset to deserve those labels. A friend of mine recently called me an “underreacter” to describe this pattern of delayed response.

  4. Thanks for writing this one, Kasey. I agree, many people don’t understand the difference between being triggered and feeling uncomfortable (if I read one more think piece about how college students need to toughen up and expect to be “challenged,” I may spontaneously combust!) — but most of the pieces I’ve read pushing back against the “uncomfortable” idea end of describing triggering very differently than I experience it. What I think of as a “hot” form of triggered: crying, shaking, hyperalert twitching/jumping, explosive anger, etc. Whereas for me, it’s going cold. Dissociating. My body freezes, my mind freezes. Not fight or flight, but back in that moment — and submitting to whatever.

    It’s good to be reminded I am not alone in that.
    <3 alice

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