Getting Triggered and the Domino Effect — tips for what to do when they all start falling
This blog was inspired by a text I got today, but it’s also a cumulation of conversations I’ve had frequently recently. Versions of navigating how trauma affects our relationships, and what to do when you’re considering your own needs, as well as those of maybe a partner, a colleague, a child or a friend.
A few years ago now I was approached by a radio show during the month of December to speak about how to talk with a partner about your practical needs from them as it relates to living with trauma.
Unfortunately, that recording was never made public, but over the course of a couple hours of discussion, a few themes kept resurfacing.
How do you address each partner’s history of trauma?
What happens when one person’s trauma responses exasperate the other’s?
What do you have to and not have to disclose?
How do you assess for safety?
What can you reasonably expect and ask of someone?
Essentially, what does it look like to navigate reoccurring dynamics of living with trauma on a practical level.
In the spirit of that question set, I want to offer a few practical tips related to one aspect of how relationships might be impacted by trauma — that being what to do when being triggered leads to the other person getting triggered.
To paint this picture further, consider this backdrop.
Two individuals meet up in a public place, maybe to have dinner, join other friends, etc.
When the second person arrives, it is clear that the first person is visibly stressed.
The second person notices, and as they start to engage in what they had planned, quickly becomes visibly stressed as well.
A few factors are important to identify:
· What is the relationship between the two people?
· Are they reacting to the same thing, or different things?
· Are they reacting to something known or unknown to both of them?
· Are they reacting to something known or unknown to one of them?
· Is this a situation they have been in together previously? How was that handled or resolved?
These questions create the context that is important to understand, but they don’t tell you what to do about the actual effect — the set up of two individuals being triggered simultaneously.
The most important question is how to deescalate the situation, and allow both individuals to return to an untriggered, or less triggered state.
To address that, the following questions are of concern:
· Am I able to communicate with this individual currently?
· Am I able to identify what would deescalate me, and can that happen together or separately?
What gets lost sometimes in our discussions about trauma, is that what reminds us of our trauma is incredibly broad, and not consistently known right away. Any of our senses can trigger us — a smell, a time of year, a tone of voice, a change in plans, a way we are touched, a loud noise, a familiar song, news that caught us off guard, or simply the weather or a person. Even people who in other moments soothe us, and frequently people we are attached to emotionally and physically.
When connection is present, being triggered feels higher stakes. Being intimately connected creates opportunities for triggers to be more readily expressed, as well as more easily set off, because the overlap in our support needs and investment in each other’s wellbeing intensifies, and reminds us of our safety. Intuitively or counterintuitively, feeling safe can frequently make us fear that we’re unsafe.
The muscle we have to build is developed through use, and that is about being able to narrate what is happening. Once de-escalation becomes the priority, the second priority is communication. Debriefing is how the significance of what is being learned is recorded by both individuals, and can influence how both can respond when something similar comes up in the future.
This will happen in iterations, because the nature of triggers is layered, and not every layer is consciously identified at the same time. It is enough to leave each other indicators that allow you to not have to start from scratch, or guess about what is meant rather than ask. Asking for clear information may be its own trigger, as might being interdependent, or being visibly upset in front of that person.
Each of those learnings points to necessary boundaries to implement within the relationship, and each boundary that is respected consistently, sets the opportunity for what triggers us to become milder.
It is that softening of what feels too tender to communicate that restores choice in how and when we communicate, and evaluates what routines for communications may need to be added or updated.
Living with trauma is truthfully not glamorous, and exposing your trauma honestly within a relationship is a big ask. And yet, if we can’t, we really can never fit within our relationships fully, because our fear that this can’t last will remain in question.
Getting to the practical ensures that the skills we need to build get used, and that as they’re used, come more easily and smoothly.
And sometimes the best you can hope for is smoother moments of trauma’s disruption.
I think we can all agree that we want that, even if we’re not yet sure what that feels like.
Start with these two words in mind: de-escalation and communication. The former will make the latter easier to practice, and faster to reach.