Disclaimer: I am not a therapist or counselor, and I do not have training in trauma therapy. I am a survivor of domestic abuse and am sharing my experience of what has helped me in the hopes that it might help someone else. If you are experiencing suffering as a result of trauma, please seek help in whatever way you can. For Domestic Violence resources, click here
Sharing your story is like opening floodgates. You test the waters a little first, sharing pieces here and there with people who you know you can trust, and over time your voice becomes stronger and louder. Eventually, you wear the name Survivor like a badge of honor. Sharing your story brings you strength and grows your courage. You start to find your community because sharing your story is an invitation for others to share their story. After a while, you feel safe to speak, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to hurt you.
I recently shared another, very small piece of my story on Facebook, and someone who I used to consider a “bonus mom” jumped into my DMs to attack me. Among the hurtful things she said to me were that I should be ashamed of myself, I am disgusting and delusional, I am full of toxic energy which I have never released in a positive way, and I am a complete contradiction and full of hatred. Even writing this now, my heart is starting to beat faster, and my forearms and the palms of my hands feel like I just dipped them in Icy Hot. Of course, I know she is wrong. She doesn’t even know me. She’s hardly spoken to me in the past decade, and other than some heated debates over the Black Lives Matter movement, which she is not in favor of, our relationship has been nothing more than random Facebook likes and comments. She didn’t make her comments publicly on my post; instead, she decided to attack me in private - where no one could see the vitriol seeping out of her.
In a moment that I later described to my brother as a protective trauma response, I replied to her messages saying that I was wishing her love and healing and hoped that if she ever had a story to share, no one would try to silence her. I presented myself as someone unaffected and completely self-assured. I was proud of my response. I even screenshot it to send to my siblings, partly so that we could collectively “wtf?” but also to show off how cool-under-pressure I was. I blocked her from messaging me, but once I no longer needed my “fight response,” my body started reacting to the attack. My siblings reminded me that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and told me not to let it bother me. I’d imagine most people would let it roll off and maybe even laugh at someone so insignificant spewing such unoriginal insults. As a survivor of abuse, sometimes it’s not that simple. Insults, especially those similar to the ones used by my abusers, are often very triggering for me.
Being triggered has become a sort-of punch line in the age of 'snowflake' shamers, but it is scary, painful, and can be very serious. It can also be hard to notice what is happening until it's too late. I started journaling the physical sensations I experience to be better equipped to helping myself sooner in the future. It doesn't always feel the same for everyone, so journaling what you notice in your body can be beneficial.
What it Feels Like
It starts subtly, tightness in my chest, and warmth in my forearms that pulses into the palms of my hands. My throat gets dry as if I've swallowed cotton balls. Then I notice my cheeks and the tops of my ears getting hot. I feel my heart beating rapidly and realize I’m not breathing. My vision starts to tunnel, and my hands begin to shake. I notice I’m squeezing my inner thighs and space between my underarms. I realize I’ve been clenching my jaw as my breath turns into a pant. My teeth start to chatter, my belly quivers, and my whole body starts to shake. I go numb. It is in this moment that I have no other choice but to release something, so tears fall. Moving feels almost impossible like I’m stuck in thick quicksand that’s pulling me down. So, what do you do? How do you make it stop?
Five Tools That Have Been Helpful for Me
1. Put your tech away. We know that scrolling socials can give us a nice shot of dopamine which lights up the reward centers in our brain, so it makes sense that we reach for our phones when we’re feeling crappy. It literally makes us feel better. The problem with using this as a soothing method when you’ve been triggered is two-fold: first, you can’t control what shows up on your feed, and whatever shows up could trigger you even more; and second, social media-induced dopamine is superficial, and the trauma response you’re experiencing will likely only grow louder the more you try to ignore it.
2. Find a comforting position. I can recommend fetal posture (side-lying), or laying down on your back with your knees bent. This will look different for everyone, but my go-to position is childs pose. In this variation, I love to support my torso and chest with a pillow. It is in this posture that I feel most safe and held. Take some time when you’re experiencing mental clarity and wellness to discover what shapes make you feel most comforted so that you can find it easier when you need it.
3. Create compression. If you have a weighted blanket, pay attention to how it makes you feel when you’re not in distress. If it comforts you, then keep it available to use during a triggering experience. I prefer hugging myself. Wrap your arms around you and squeeze tightly. Say to yourself, “I am safe," or create another phrase that you can remind yourself of that resonates with you. Repeat it as many times as you need until you start to believe it. If the compression makes it hard to breathe, take a break from it, and come back to it whenever it feels like it would be beneficial.
4. Breathe. It sounds simple, but it might not feel simple. It doesn’t matter how you’re breathing as long as you are breathing. It can sometimes feel impossible to take a big enough breath, so trying to control it is unimportant. Whether you’re breathing through your nose or mouth is irrelevant at first. Once you’ve started to feel a little bit of calm, you can try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth and slowing your breath down. Notice how your heartbeat starts to slow down with each mindful breath. Whenever possible, breathe in and out through your nose. Try to extend your exhale a little longer than your inhale. Consider breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of six, increasing the counts as needed.
5. Drink some ice-cold water. Shifting energy and heavy breathing can leave you feeling incredibly thirsty, and ice-cold water can shock you just enough to pull you out of the quicksand. I put this step last because going to the kitchen to get a cup of ice water can be too difficult at first. If you have ice water near you when you’ve been triggered, however, you can try this step first. Take small sips. Breathing consistently between each sip. I prefer to use a reusable straw to make drinking easier, especially if I’m still shaking when I get to this step.
Most importantly, and above all else, remind yourself that what you’re experiencing is normal, and you are not alone. No matter what triggered you, your feelings are real and valid. Once you’re able to, step back into your bravery. Take all the time you need, but don’t give up on your healing journey or on sharing your story. The world needs your light in it. I am proud of you, and I love you.