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Washing Machine: A story about Triggers

It's funny how triggers work.

Specific sights, sounds, smells and other stimuli can trigger your brain to reproduce a memory or inject a thought (long buried in your brain's filing cabinet) back into your conscience. When most people hear the word trigger, they think PTSD. And they would be correct in that one of the symptoms of PTSD is flashbacks of trauma.

But triggers are not always traumatic. They can also evoke good memories. For instance, whenever I smell Irish Spring soap, I am reminded of my very first high school crush. Besides being super good looking (at least to me, then) my crush always smelled like Irish Spring soap. And despite realizing that the relationship was not the eternal love I had hoped for, the trigger brings a nostalgic smile to my face.

I was triggered unexpectedly last week during a telephone call with a colleague. My friend casually mentioned something about her washing machine. Instantly and unexpectedly, an image of water, a toddler and big waves flashed to my brain, distracting me from the conversation.

You see, when my daughter was around two(ish), she loved to be in the swimming pool. But her "most favorite thing" happened when I perched her on top of my shoulders and bounced up and down in the water. I would call out, "You're a washing machine!" as the chlorinated waves washed over us both. She would cackle and clap her hands, begging me to "do it again, mommy!"

Endorphins poured into my brain as I experienced that moment again. Before I forced my brain back into the conversation with my colleague, my conscious mind started searching for some reasoning.

The first thought after the memory popped into my mind was (how weird)! That has never happened before. I couldn't find any logical connection for the trigger. I mean, I have talked about washing machines before without thinking about those antics. So I activated my curiosity in tracing the source. Looking back at my day prior to the conversation, I was able to identify the underlying issue that allowed a simple word to trigger my brain. Earlier that morning, musing about how much I missed my daughter now that she is an adult and on her own, I made a mental note to reach out to her and arrange a get together. However, I became busy and had not yet done so. Therefore, the trigger occurred because I was feeling guilty about not taking the time out to make that call. My curiosity satisfied; I was able to refocus back to the conversationa with my friend.

Later in the day, I started thinking about triggers and the things we carry around. My experience was the recounting of a happy memory. Unfortunately, not all triggers evoke happy memories. Some triggers can evoke painful memories of past trauma.

First of all, the word trigger can be misleading. When we are first introduced to the concept of a trigger, is in the realm of firearms. We watch shows about cowboys with guns, cops and robbers etc. Ask a child to define a trigger, they will likely describe a gun part. The difference between a gun trigger and an emotional trigger involves control. The hand that grips the gun has complete control of the trigger. Hence the phrase (pulling the trigger). Without the act of pulling the trigger, the gun cannot fire.

Mental and emotional triggers, however, occur without bidding and in an area of the brain that we don't have a lot of control over: that darn Amygdala. I like to call the Amygdala, the Tornado Siren of the Brain. Because when it sends out the warning signals, the body instantly takes action. Just the very fact that we don't have control of our own trigger response can elicit (when the responses are related to past trauma) unwanted feelings of fear, sadness, and anxiety.

Often children in the foster care system experience numerous triggers of the past trauma. And without understanding or processing how their trauma has affected their lives, they experience the trigger as if it were happening now. They can lash out with behaviors. They can withdraw from those who care about them. They can harm themselves. I have blogged before about the trauma behavior of children from hard places.

I want to focus today on the triggers for those who chose to work closely with children and families who come from a place of trauma. I am talking about the social workers, therapists, juvenile counselors, even teachers. Taking in the trauma stories day in and day out can cause secondary trauma, vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. I often write about secondary trauma, because I have seen it so often take a serious toll on the mental, emotional and even physical health of the very ones who are trying to make a difference.

In my novel, The Boy in the Basement, I made a point to incorporate, into the storyline, an aspect of secondary trauma suffered by the veteran supervisor after a former foster child is killed in a domestic violence situation. The message I intended to send is that secondary trauma is real. It's nothing to be ashamed of and can affect all of us at any given time.

Triggers don't happen on a schedule. So, it's hard to plan for them. What happens if you do experience a negative trigger? How do you manage it?

Be aware of your body signals. It's so important to know your own body and how it reacts to negative triggers. Be aware and on the lookout for physical symptoms such as

  1. Sweaty palms or clenched fists

  2. Pounding heart

  3. Fast Breathing or feeling like you are not getting enough oxygen when you breathe

  4. Upset Stomach

  5. Feeling of Exhaustion

The emotional symptoms are a bit more vague:

  1. Confusion

  2. Loss of Interest

  3. Irritability

  4. Anger

  5. Extreme sadness

Being aware of your body and mind, you can recognize that these symptoms are likely the result of a trigger.

But how do you manage a trigger when it comes? Here are some tips for managing triggers.

  1. Deep Breathing

  2. Breathe in through your nose. Hold for 4 beats. Slowly exhale for 6 beats like blowing through a straw

  3. Take a step back

  4. Be present. Do not dwell on the trigger but focus on your surroundings

  5. Distracting techniques

  6. Distract your brain with techniques like mentally listing all of the things in your room that are white

  7. Self Talk/Affirmations

  8. Remind yourself that you are safe. Remind yourself that you have gotten through difficult times before and can do it again. Remind yourself that you are loved and supported and can ask for help.

These tips are simplistic but effective ways to manage triggers. However, the best advice I can give is this “cultivate a support team!”

A great work support team consists of those who have been where you have been or maybe walking through the same thing. Make time each week to just get together and shore each other up. Discuss self-care techniques each of you have found to be helpful. Just knowing that you are not alone when feeling overwhelmed goes a long way towards moving forward.

Finally, you may go months or even years without feeling the effect of secondary trauma and emotional triggers. But as my grandaddy always said, "An ounce of Prevention is worth a pound of Cure." You think he made that up?

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