Everyday Triggers and Survivors

Many survivors, including myself, finds it difficult to manage their emotions.  That may sound a little strange manging your emotions don’t they just happen after all? Don’t we just experience them?

Well yes and no. You see most people live within a fairly tight emotional boundary, usually not to happy or too sad, too excited or too bored. These everyday emotions can it seems often even go unnoticed until somebody else mentions them, the “you look a bit down today, is everything OK” type conversation

The majority of people have learnt, in very much the same way people learn to walk or to talk, buy living the experience, as children, in an environment that allows them to both experience the emotions in a safe space but also one the by its nature helps to moderate the emotional swings. Parents calm the scared child and excide the bored one.

For survivors of childhood abuse, particularly those where the abuse happened within the family setting, the story is sadly very different. Often, we never felt that safe guiding hand, the calming voice or touch so in alter life emotional responses can be far from regulated.

Many of us live with an underlying feeling of existential dread. Knowing, without knowing why, that something is about to go badly wrong, that we are about to be hurt again.  Small events that many would take in their stride, spilling a cup of coffee, a PC that refuses to cooperate or a friend sending an ambiguous text, can tip our reaction over that very narrow ledge into a runaway emotional storm. For those that have never experienced it, it goes like this:

The everyday event triggers feelings of anger, usually at yourself “why did I do that” or “what have I don’t wrong now?” The feelings that generates have a resonance to feelings last felt as a child during the abusive time so the current adult state almost instantly maps back onto that scared child and the feeling intensify both reinforcing the link to the child state as well as the adult, now convinced that he or she is to blame for what happened, reacts strongly often making the situation worse. We send a negative text back to our friend or rush the process of making more coffee resulting in even more disaster as we step on the cat and spill even more. All of this just reinforces the feelings of anger and self-hatred as well as that link to adverse child hood experiences. A very strong negative and destructive cycle begins.

We experience a similar cycle when challenged by direct emotional events, for example having what for most would be a straightforward conversation with a partner. It doesn’t have to be an emotionally charged one, though if it does touch on the relationship then that makes things much more prone to triggering the emotional cycle. One such conversation may involve the partner of the survivor suggesting they visit her family for the holiday season. The survivor subconsciously sees this as a rebuke, thinking that his partner is unhappy at him for not taking into account her wishes, obviously this isn’t the case but deep inside the sense of unease begins to build until it results in an overt action, maybe becoming very defensive with his partner who senses the defensiveness and reacts to it.

The rest, as they say, is history!

Even watching a film can easily have the same impact. It doesn’t have to be an overtly emotional film, just have a scene that starts the emotional reaction. For example, a simple scene involving a family where a child is happy and looked after can trigger at first a feeling of regret that that wasn’t the experience of the survivor. But that will often escalate, I will remember how I felt as a child, longing for a hug from my mother so I would feel safe. That in turn brings all the emotions of that little boy to the surface in the adult me and the emotional storm begins.

Because these emotions are not simply being experienced by the adult but also by the child, the 13 year old boy, and because the adult and inner child form a feedback loop where the feelings of one drive the feelings of the other and back again they can form a run away emotional loop making the sensations, the emotional storm worse and worse until it becomes unbearable. It is at this time that the survivor either has a mental health crisis or if they recognise what’s happening in tile can take some grounding or other action such as self-harm, to break the loop and regain control of their emotions.

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