Triggers and the responses that they elicit are something that everyone experiences to a greater or lesser extent in their lives. I want to reflect on two main areas of triggering that I experience regularly, negative emotional triggering as a result of my C-PTSD and positive physical and verbal emotional triggering within our D/s.
Part #1…the C-PTSD stuff
I have lived with emotional triggering, which results in what is known as emotional flashbacks, for more years than I care to recall, but it is only relatively recently in my life that I’ve had the opportunity through focused trauma therapy to make sense of them and develop awareness of the root causes and how they affect me.
Emotional flashbacks as a result of emotional triggering is a common and painful response to childhood trauma. An emotional flashback is basically the unwanted experience of regressing to the feeling states of having been a traumatised child.
I now recognise that, for me, a flashback is usually triggered by something in my environment that subconsciously and immediately takes me back to overwhelming feelings from my childhood, like a fast track neural network wired from present to past. It happens so incredibly fast I am often caught on the hop before I have the chance to rationalise it, and it feels like a sucker punch to my gut. It is a particularly unpleasant physical feeling that I have grown to recognise and feels like a ball of dread in the pit of my stomach. I know I’m triggered when I feel that feeling.
Essentially, during a flashback, the fight/flight response (sympathetic nervous system) is activated, often by the smallest of things, and creates overwhelming feelings such as fear, alienation, despair, depression or grief. There are times when I’ve been significantly affected for a number of days, struggling to calm strong emotions, at other times it can pass very quickly. Peter Walker, author of ‘C-PTSD – From Surviving to Thriving’ describes them as ‘amygdala hijacking’, hence the swift and often unexpected nature of the trigger.
The double whammy is that, on top of trying to get a handle on a flashback, it is usual to also experience what is known as toxic shame at the same time. This is a horrible self punishing sense of being not ok as a person. It can create painful feelings around feeling fatally flawed, inadequate, inconsequential and unlovable and can lead to self isolation in response to believing oneself as unworthy of comfort or support in comparison to others.
I know from my own experience that shame of what I came from in terms of my experiences at a young age of parental drug addiction, domestic violence and imprisonment, combined with what I now know to be emotional neglect served me up a healthy dose of toxic shame and I am all too familiar, unfortunately, with battling such persecutory feelings as a result.
Through a great deal of self reflection, discussion and mindfulness I have identified that my triggers primarily sit around my sense of worth. When I have strong self esteem and feel secure in myself and in my relationships with friends, family and Cuiplash I am not really affected very much, but when I feel less strong then I can be triggered very easily with little control over how and when. It may come as a result of a dialogue, or lack of one, a situation or event, even reading or a film. I still remember ugly crying at Inside Out and Moana for this reason.
What then occurs is a bit of an internal battle between my logical and rational adult self and my, at that time, very triggered emotional little child self to attempt to gain an even keel. Because I realise an emotional flashback is happening I don’t often feel I can trust my feelings about it as logically I know they are disproportionate and it can take me some time to calm down my upset little self, if that makes sense.
To an outside observer, however, you would have no clue whatsoever that this has happened to me, except I’ve maybe become a little quieter as I try and untangle internally. I carry on with whatever it is I was doing yet I’m doing a huge amount of stuff inside, like a swan gliding along yet underneath the water it is frantically paddling. I would say this is also where the toxic shame comes in as I tend to manage it myself and would not readily ask for support or explain what I’m experiencing as I’d worry about how I’d be viewed or about being ignored or rejected. I’m also well aware how ridiculous it may seem and am embarrassed by the feels that hit me.
This all links back to not having any emotional needs met when I was little when the worst was happening and everyone was compromised one way or another, and not feeling safe to express fear or sadness, or feeling burdensome at the thought, given everything else that was happening at the time. I’ll admit to even feeling apprehensive about writing all this down here for similar reasons but I think it’s important for me to use this space as it’s all me at the end of the day, the good and the bad, and I must gain some self acceptance in it all.
This has caused significant issues for Cuiplash and I as when I’m in the thick of it I find it almost impossible to verbally work through it simultaneously and he has often left me to it, thinking that is what is best for me, which further triggers me. It can be a bit of a mess to be honest and has affected our dynamic on many occasions which of course then brings guilt into the mix too. I know it is frustrating and difficult for him to observe and manage and I’ll always be sorry about that.
To help us both he added two additional rules to our D/s. These are simple and easy and allow me to signal to him visually and verbally, without a huge discussion at that moment, that I am affected. We implemented an emotional safe word that I must try and use to let him know. Sometimes I have unfortunately found that even that proves too difficult so we also have a fall back visual signal rule if that happens. I chose a necklace with a silver rabbit on it that I can wear, as an emotional talisman if you like, to alert him. Sometimes even putting that on is hard but I know I must. I will write more about these in future posts.
Experiencing emotional flashbacks as a result of mostly benign triggers is really exhausting and often feels painful. It’s really horrible actually and is hard work. Recognition and understanding is going a long way in moving forward with it all, as is learning ways to manage them individually, as a couple, and as Dom and sub when they do occur. I really hope that this is something I can overcome.