Triggered

I’m sitting right now and I’m completely non-verbal.  I’m partway through the experience of being emotionally triggered. A few minutes ago I was laying on my side, catatonic, a while before that I was crying and shaking uncontrollably trying to catch my breath, before that I was trying to deescalate my quickly spiraling out of focus feelings by asking for help as I felt this episode coming on. I was unsuccessful at removing all stimulus from my overwhelmed state, and I ended up full on in this triggered thing I wish I didn’t know so well… Following are my thoughts and observations.

I can’t open my mouth. It’s sealed shut by stiff unmoving muscles. My entire body is shaking. The only things moving right now are my fingers, and they are moving much more slowly than usual on my keyboard. Dreamily kind of, definitely detached from my usual physical speed. Even my arms and elbows are clamped to my sides unmoving. I feel physically numb.

My brain goes black during the emotional parts of being triggered and the catatonic parts. Tunnel vision or complete blackout. It happens early on, and definitely has its hold on me when all the overwhelmed feelings take control.

When my brain is going into the darkness I cannot hear what is being said to me. Literally. It’s like the people speaking to me are a million miles away, or their sounds have gotten warped from words into a series of sounds I don’t know how to interpret, like talking underwater but I don’t have the ability to focus and decipher, and everything I do hear sounds frightening and too big for me to respond to. I can’t speak, even if a phrase or something I want to say is screaming repetitively in my brain, my mouth won’t open and I cannot figure out how to release my voice. I can see myself, sometimes, as if from outside my body, and I look like a small child huddled in a corner in vast darkness, unsafe, with “The Nothing” snarling at me threatening to bite. I am frozen, shaking, and I cannot stop crying. My brain hurts.

Fight, flight, fuck, freeze. I am a freeze. I try to talk my way out of the circumstance if I can, and it usually ends in me crying and getting small and saying “Stop. Please stop,” pleading over and over again. I am overwhelmed and I need slowness, care, kindness, and silence.

I know to breathe. I get on the floor and I hold my head and I breathe. The sounds my body makes are like hyperventilation almost. Minutes tick by. At some point, with enough silence around me, and a while to recover, my breathing slows a little and maybe my tears dry up a bit. I am still tightly holding on and I still cannot hear properly or see or remember what’s happening around me.

I am not hungry. My stomach is in knots. I can’t even think of eating. Sometimes this lasts for days.

It’s hard for me to sleep. It’s hard for me to shut the voices out of my head.

The catatonic part sets in and I lay somewhere not seeing or hearing or moving. Not really in my body.

Sometimes, after a while, I can do dissociative things like write (example: this blog about what’s going on in my head and body), or clean something, or rearrange my room so it feels more comforting and safe for me to find a space to nestle in. Slowly. Usually it takes a while to make my way under the covers or to somewhere comfortable (if can I get there without help). Often I find myself lying uncomfortably on a hard surface for a while, or perched panting in the middle of the floor, or I’ve pressed my body against a wall like an animal trying to disappear.

Any voice that is not soft and kind makes it worse. Especially the crying and dissociation. Asking me to think critically or answer questions or absorb criticism is not possible without tearing the matter of my mind into bits and pieces. That’s what it feels like — like my brain is being torn apart like pillow stuffing if I have to try and think something through and be present in the room. I cannot figure out how to open my mouth, it feels like I will die if I do.

If you’re near me and want to help, speak to me softly and kindly and I might be able to accept a hug. Non-verbal hugging is best. Or a gentle but firm hand on my back or leg or somewhere grounding to my body. Being told “it’ll be ok” can be helpful. Being told I’m safe and no one needs anything from me is good. These are things I’ve found in the past that work.

Please don’t make me speak or think before I am ready to. If I try too soon to rise to the occasion of communication I will plunge all the way back in again. I don’t have control until I do have control. The more control I try to have when I’m still shut down, the worse the situation gets. Me retreating away from people with regular check-ins, and asking for silence and kind petting is the only thing I know that works.

Please don’t ask me to process what happened with you… At least not until the next day if I seem talkative then, or if we’re engaged in a normal conversation already. Ask if I’m ready to talk about it. I might not be. I’ll let you know when I am if you ask me. Please respect what I tell you. This takes time to climb out of.

If you feel bad about what I’m going through, please take care of yourself and try not to. I can’t help you right now. I’m sorry for that. In fact I’m beating myself up about it inside probably. I feel like a fucking asshole out of control animal and I also feel weak and I’m also trying to preserve myself and my brain and find safety so I can not be like this anymore. I desperately do not want to be feeling the way I feel or acting this way anymore. Inside I feel wild and afraid and it isn’t your fault — but you can definitely make it much worse if I can’t get away from external stimulus. I am in the intense experience of overwhelm.

My known triggers are: angry sounding voices directed at me, fear that I’m letting someone down or being needed when I can’t help, not expecting to be social and having a social occasion sprung on me without a day (or enough quiet personal time) to prepare, having recently been in a fight with a friend or loved one, being approached in an objectifying manner about sex and/or sex that feels nonconsensual or disconnected and moving too fast for me to process, being told what I’m thinking or what I’m feeling (rather than questioned about it), accusing me of doing things I’m not doing for reasons I’m not intending, being around homophobic family members, interacting with people who have been abusive or traumatizing to me in the past… There are others. There are triggers I’m sure I don’t know about too. Even these listed triggers don’t always throw me into this overwhelmed freeze, especially if I’m in a good solid healthy space. Sometimes it takes a number of these triggers over the course of a few days to add up for me to experience the one that breaks the camel’s back and sends me spiraling out. There are triggers which I think I’m on top of, yet still every now and then I trip up on. I’m surprised by what sneaks up on me and what doesn’t, and sometimes I see it coming a mile away…

Here’s how I try to take care of my triggered state: When I’m able I say outloud that, “I’m triggered and I need some space” to anyone I trust or am engaging with who’s around me. My brain gets really really really basic with my language. What this means is exactly what it sounds like. As my verbal and self-expressive centers start to fail inside of me, and I’m less and less capable of actually speaking words or making sense, the freeze and terror feelings start to introduce uncontrollable crying. I try to say what I actually need in hopes that I’ll get it and can start to breathe and deescalate. Before I dissociate completely and am doing things which may or may not make sense to anyone watching me, I usually end up saying one phrase over and over again, hoping it will be heard. Usually it is, “please stop”. This means Stop. This means stop speaking to me. Stop asking me questions. Stop needing me to respond to you. Stop asking me to make decisions. Stop yelling at me or using a harsh tone with me. Stop poking at me. Stop. Stop. Stop. Please stop. Stop talking at me or passive-aggressively around me so that I can overhear your inner monologue and stop pushing me. Please stop. As my nervous system shuts down and my muscles tighten and begin to shake, the only way I can resurface is with time, lots of breathing, warmth, hugs (maybe — depending if I feel safe in my body or with any particular person hugging me), quiet, kind words and calming vocal tones, gentleness, and reminders that I’m going to be ok.

I will plunge back under, drowning in the sea of darkness and physical seizing, fear, and despair if you criticize me at this moment, or need me to listen to you explain a bunch of things when I’m begging you to stop stimulating me.

This is what my triggered place is like.

I’m sorry I don’t always see it coming and get out of the way in time.

I cannot take care of you or your emotions when I am in it for the length of time that I am in it. I don’t expect you to take care of me, but I do need you to disengage completely if you cannot do the simple things I ask (stop, kind help), or if you cannot stop yourself from doing the things which undermine even further my functionality.

I am laying here writing this, amazed, that I can be writing this clearly. I still can’t open my mouth or move my tense shaking body, but I can observe my state and intellectually parse, fingers on keyboard, elbows and arms still pinned frozen to my sides. My cat is cuddled up, warming my side. It’s helping me be here in my physical body even if I can’t locate my verbal self. My intellect seems to be computing along, driving, doing, autopilot. I can’t feel my insides. My emotions seem dead or far away and wrapped up in baffling. I’m cold even though I shouldn’t be. The thought of food makes me want to throw up even though it’s dinnertime and I was hungry a little while ago.

I have a lot of experience being very high functioning. There’s always been work, school, friends I can’t speak about my feelings with, networking to do, rehearsal, supporting others’ emotional states, roommates not to upset, people around, expectations, students coming over, work shifts to get to… I have a lot of experience moving out of my body, out of my emotions, and letting my intellect do the autopilot driving.

To someone on the outside it probably doesn’t seem like I’m triggered or really fucked up right now, or that I have a really bad stomachache and headache, that I’m not inside my own body, that I’m not experiencing the moment or the physical place I’m inhabiting. I’m writing this. Earlier I was looking up articles about “how to help someone who’s triggered” to explain my situation via text to my friend who was nearby when this episode took hold because I couldn’t open my mouth to answer their persisting questions. In the past, from the outside, I’ve just looked like a regular everyday me sitting on a curb in the rain or snow not coming inside for a long time… I can’t move my body without warmth sometimes, except to wave or smile at someone driving by so they don’t think I’m crazy. My brain can do robotic “everything’s fine” faces for strangers.

It’s a weird kind of layered reality which reminds me of “Being John Malkovich”. Those people are in his head controlling his body. I’m like him: in the dark, losing motor control, and a bunch of things I’m doing don’t make sense to people around me who know me. It also seems like maybe I’m just fine to others. I’m not. I don’t know when I will be.

They tell you to drink water or eat when you’re triggered (maybe because it means you have to open your mouth?). I cannot figure out how to do that. Still. It’s been an hour? I feel dead inside. And afraid. Like running away. Everything seems really violent and not ok… When I tell you I’m triggered, please just stop everything and say, “Ok. How can I help you?” in your calmest talking to a little kid voice, and then whatever I say just accept it for what it is, and if you need to ask me questions about your own emotional stuff please don’t until I can talk again. If I say I can’t answer questions (or I literally freeze up and don’t answer your questions) it means I don’t have my brain back yet and I can’t figure out how to do it. The more you press, the worse my brain gets, the more I regress back into my actively triggered darkness reality, the longer it takes me to come back and talk. If you can’t emotionally handle waiting for me to come back it’s ok. Just let me know you can’t deal with my triggers so you’re going to let me take some space and to come find you when I’m ready to talk. I will do my best. I thank you for respecting what I’m telling you, and for you taking care of yourself (and thereby me) by putting up your own respectful boundaries.

Please don’t accuse me of anything if I’ve told you I’m triggered. It makes it worse really fast. I promise you when I take responsibility for being in a triggered state that I’m not blaming you, I’m telling you something that’s going on so I can try to stop the process I feel myself being sucked into. I might not be able to tell you before it goes too far, but I’ll ask for space if I can. If you want to help: kindness, soft words, “it’ll be ok” (I might protest if I’m feeling wildly out of control, and that’s ok, it’s just my feelings and I can’t let them go until I’ve processed them), getting me food or water or tea, a steady hand on my back, asking if I want a hug or a blanket, listening to me and not responding if I do talk, not judging me, not making me do anything I’m not ready to do, not pressing if I’m not answering… These are the things you can do which should help me.

My triggers aren’t about you, unless they are. If they are and you know you tripped them, please apologize. Sincerely, it really helps. It’s no big deal in the big picture, but it holds a lot of weight in this moment. I assume you didn’t mean to (we’re friends in this scenario). Apologizing for triggering me (or making my triggers worse by arguing with me when I’ve told you I’m triggered and need whatever is happening between us to stop) goes a long way toward helping me trust you and feel safe again and begin to relax and unfreeze.

It takes me days to get over my triggers sometimes, sometimes only hours. I feel like a part of my brain has blown out of my head and I’m exhausted and slow. My face usually looks like I’ve been crying and not sleeping, ’cause usually that’s true. That stresses me out a lot too. Believing people are judging me because I look stressed or tired or like I’ve been crying makes unwinding from this freeze and overwhelm harder. Sometimes that stress contributes to retriggering me more easily. It definitely adds to the tiredness I feel. All of this sucks the energy out of me. It takes a while to rebuild. I need a lot of calm alone time and warm kind friend time to get back up. It helps if you can make me laugh.

All I can really tell you is: I’m numb. Tomorrow my head will hurt from crying, my body will be sore from having seized muscles for so long, and I’ll be tired, very very tired, my brain still won’t be functioning properly. I’ll be very easily startleable. The space behind my eyeballs especially hurts and aches, so does the space at the back of my neck and base of my skull. I’ll be stressed out about it all. I’ll be maddeningly (at least to me) slow.

I try to stop the snowball from rolling downhill: “I’m triggered. I need this to stop. Please stop. I need some space. Please be kind to me…” I’m doing the best I can for all of us, but especially me. If you’re a friend try to understand or at least care enough not to not make it worse.

I still can’t open my mouth. I’m so tired. I can’t figure out how to shut down and rest. I can’t figure out how to reactivate or come back to present.

I know soon enough I’ll be back inside of me. In time. With enough breathing.

***     ***     ***

Following are some suggestions others have written to me about how they ground themselves when they find themselves feeling triggered. I think most people experience being triggered, panic attacks, or PTSD at some point (if not recurring) in their lives. It’s deeply personal to navigate these scenes, and not everyone looks like I do when they are in that space. Some of these suggestions work for me, some do not. I hope this writing and this list helps you and yours if you need ideas. Having written this all out, communicated with others, and some time passing has helped me a lot:

  • Breathe
  • Eating and/or drinking
  • Get outside and feel the cold, the wind, your bare feet solid on the ground
  • Visit the ocean, mountains, woods, a lake or stream
  • Wander, take a walk, and talk to strangers, be present for someone else
  • Change your location and get away from overstimulation
  • Step away, ground, and breathe
  • Rubbing a stone or piece of wood between your fingers
  • Frozen oranges: The cold helps, and as they warm they release their essential oils, and tactilely get softer. Or take a warm shower with a frozen orange, the combination of hot/cold sensations, smell, and taste roots you back in the body sensually
  • Hot shower
  • Cold shower, running hands under cold water, an ice cube on the forearms
  • Mind altering or mood altering or LOUD music
  • Wild unchoreographed dancing
  • Aromatherapy oils (lavender, dragon’s blood, sandalwood, cedar, or burning oak to name a few) on facial pressure points and tops of feet
  • Crystals, moonlight rituals, lighting incense, holding a particular stone to ground back in the body
  • Smudging oneself with smoke, take a tincture of essential oils
  • Pet cuddles, love, and warmth
  • The act of creation/being creative
  • Drawing circles or something which requires active noticing and attention to details
  • Make a snowman, do simple things
  • Look around the room and say the things you see, out loud if you feel safe to
  • Find close friends who will understand and listen while you process
  • Seek out kindness and help from others
  • Sometimes very gentle non-verbal touching can help (sometimes)
  • Find comfort knowing it’s only your brain trying to protect you, and that you are bigger than fear
  • Tell yourself you love you
  • Repeating a comforting mantra
  • Remembering you are not alone

Play On My Friends,
~ Creature

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