We’ve all had the experience of hearing an old song that reminds us of when we first heard it, how old we were and what stage of life we were in at the time. Or maybe certain smells remind you of somewhere you have been and an experience you had. Most of the time these flashbacks are wonderful reminders of the good times in our lives.
Then there are the dark triggers that may remind us of a traumatic time or experience. They are sometimes connected to strong negative emotions that are hard to move on from.
I wanted to know a bit more about this word and did a bit of an online search. I found the following definition which I think describes it perfectly:
“A trigger is anything that sets you off emotionally and activates memories of your trauma. It’s particular to you and what your experience has been. Triggered, we revert to the feelings and behaviours we had in the traumatising situation”.*
Whilst walking on the beach yesterday with a beautiful friend, I was talking to her about something that someone said to me last week that rocked me to my core. We talked about triggers and cruel reminders and it was such a light bulb moment for me to recognise certain situations that trigger my own emotions.
Last week I was walking along the beach one morning when I ran into a man that I had come to know whilst being part of a recovery program at the hospital. There was a small group of us participating together, all different ages, who were all going through different types and stages of cancer treatment. We all developed a strong bond and shared stories with each other along the way.
The program ended for some of us around Christmas time and we had a little gathering to celebrate and swapped phone numbers with the intention to reunite in several months time.
For the purpose of this blog, (and because I didn’t ask permission to write about him), let’s call my friend from the hospital program “Bob”. I think Bob is in about his late 60’s, has battled cancer in his brain, lungs and now liver. When I met him he was still going through chemo and, like all of us, had lost his hair.
When I walked past Bob on the beach I didn’t realise it was him at first. I said hello and kept walking thinking “I know that man”. I was several steps further on when I realised who he was and spun around and called out his name. We hadn’t recognised each other initially because we both had hair! We embraced each other with a warm knowing hug. You know the ones… the hugs that mean so much when you share a bond with someone, even if you don’t know them very well.
We exchanged updates on our situations and the events that had occurred since we saw each other last. I talked about my upcoming surgery and Bob talked about his treatment that he needs to undergo for the next two years.
And then he said… “if I live that long”.
That was my trigger.
My heart sank and I tried to hide the shock I felt. Bob said it with a smile on his face and a laugh under his breath, but for me it was hugely confronting. That one comment brought back all my fear. Fear about ‘what if’. Fear for Bob and fear for myself.
I had been able to move on from feeling this fear for myself every day, and it all just came flooding back in an instant. It was like a scene in a scary movie when they zoom in on something really fast and you are left with the still shot of a horror scene. To add to that, the feeling in my gut that was filled with dread rose to my throat. But I couldn’t show Bob that emotion. He needed my support and positivity. I guess the reality for Bob is much more confronting than I could know. He is faced with his own mortality every day he wakes up.
When I was alone, I cried. I cried for Bob and I cried for me.
It has taken several days to move on from that emotion. I have had a really big think about how I can deal with the emotion that arises when triggered. I’m certainly no expert and am not qualified in this area but I think I have learnt much over my time to figure this out.
I feel that it is important to acknowledge how we feel when we react to a trigger. It may feel uncomfortable and unsettling, and that’s ok. We can’t ignore our emotions, we need to embrace them. Not in a way that we negatively affect others but in a way that helps us process.
One way that helps me is to write. I have been doing this for many years now. And I don’t mean write a blog or a book, or anything else that other people will see. I have also taught my kids to use this technique when they have had issues in the past.
Sit with a notepad and pen or pencil and just write. Write whatever comes out. It doesn’t need to flow or even make any sense. It doesn’t even need to be legible, it just needs to be your raw emotion. It is a cathartic process to articulate the emotions you are feeling and offload. I can remember some days through the early stages of my breast cancer journey I would sit and write page after page of “f you cancer”…
I don’t believe you should journal those emotions. You can’t keep that stuff hanging around and you certainly don’t need to go back and be reminded of them. Those feelings should be written on paper that you can rip up, destroy and dispose of.
Whatever you do to help yourself get through your reaction to the trigger, remember that it will pass.
There are always going to be triggers that affect us in life in both positive and negative ways. It depends how we manage them that makes all the difference.
Be kind to yourself. None of us are perfect and we always have much to learn. But that’s the raw and completely beautiful part of life…