Trigger Me, I Dare You — (Pt. 3)

Triggers Are Opportunities

There is an assumption in society that it’s best to avoid triggers. After all, they can lead to destruction at worst, or extreme discomfort at best. But there are good reasons why triggers, despite their discomfort, can be opportunities in disguise. When a prior traumatic experience is triggered, there is a window of opportunity to deal with it effectively. Often, until triggered, those traumatic and incompletely processed experiences remain so far “backstage” it isn’t possible to effectively process them. With the right tools, a trigger opportunity can bring about a lasting change in a person’s life. Sometimes, the right “tool” is a mental health professional, especially if the triggered experience is deemed to be overwhelming or induces an inclination to do harm to self or others. Often, triggers can be processed on your own, and there are tools available to help.

I will share a private, powerful aspect of my life: I was sexually abused and bullied as a child and sexually assaulted as an adult. Perhaps the worst and most pervasive feeling during these incidents was the feeling of being unable to control the situation. Consequently, as an adult, I have often been triggered by anything that even approximates control. For example, I have seldom been able to comfortably allow someone else to drive a car in which I was a passenger. In fact, I’ve even found flying in a commercial aircraft uncomfortable, not because I feared crashing, but because I was not the pilot! I’ve also found myself triggered when my wife would do anything that even smelled like control. She’s often described these experiences as, “walking on eggshells.” Obviously, this is not a condition that is good for relationships.

Living and working in China, where there is so much control held by government officials in every aspect of life, I have experienced triggers due to this issue of control. With so many trigger opportunities, I’ve been able to use CJEA (Creative Journal Expressive Arts) techniques to gain a better understanding and control of my own emotions during these triggering incidents.

CJEA is a brain-science-based method of creative expression developed by Dr. Lucia Capacchione in the 1970’s when she experienced some difficult health issues. It is currently the method of choice for a growing community of certified practitioners working with organizations within the military, schools, corrections departments, courts, public safety departments, corporations, and with individuals, couples and families. CJEA utilizes the power and unique characteristics of both sides of the brain. This is done by expressing one’s self through movement, drawing, sketching or sculpting combined with writing using both the dominant and non-dominant hand.

One day recently, after experiencing a “control issue” trigger that unleashed emotional and physical symptoms (irritability and sudden intestinal cramping), I seized the opportunity to explore more about my control issues using some simple CJEA techniques. Fortunately, I had my Beijing apartment to myself that day. I placed a blank piece of paper on the table and used my dominant hand (right hand, in my case) to write questions to myself, based on the CJEA training I had received. Then, with various colored pencils, I used my left hand to scribble the answers using either text or drawing.

By doing this, I was able to tap into parts of my brain that seemed resistant to connect to my brain’s speech centers, and therefore were not often utilized when trying to talk over my concerns with my wife or anyone else. These parts of me had held onto emotional content that had not been expressed since I was a child. Metaphorically speaking, this abused child within me had been wandering around just off-stage, making trouble. Now I was giving “him” unprecedented access to say what was on his mind. And he did! He expressed terrible feelings and wanted assurances from me (the adult me) that I would be more conscious of him and his concerns. I offered some heartfelt promises, and immediately felt more peaceful.

If this communication with myself sounds bizarre to you, I assure you that you too have various parts of you. Each part has its own energy level and each part experiences life a little differently. During my extensive training with Dr. Capacchione, one of the most intriguing revelations to me was that we all have specific parts within us, doing specific functions. It isn’t mysterious; it’s simply the way we were all built.   

It wasn’t necessary, at least during this episode, to re-hash and remember all the abuse. If I had noticed the discussion going in that direction, I might have waited for my wife to be present, or at least in another room. No, I simply needed to communicate and negotiate with a childlike part of me about the feelings of being controlled.

From this experience and many like it, I have learned that I am an excellent therapeutic guide for my own mental health. I do not have a pathology and therefore do not need the help of a certified mental health professional. If that should ever become necessary, I wouldn’t hesitate to make use of that additional resource.

There is no reason to live a life full of misery and frustration. When the “Broadway play” that is life seems to be more chaotic than it should be, there is hope.

Chuck and Laraine Chamberlain have been trained and certified in CJEA techniques. For more information about CJEA, click here. For information about Dr. Lucia Capacchione’s books, click here

Trigger Me–I Dare You (Pt. 2)

The Politics of Triggers

“Trigger Warning” has become a common expression in modern media. A trigger warning is simply a warning that what comes next might cause someone who suffers from prior trauma to remember or relive their experience. On the face of it, it is a sensitive and welcome acknowledgement that painful conditions such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are real and prevalent.

However, the use of such warnings and the thought process behind it have become part of the country’s divisive political discussion. The extreme elements of one faction seem bent on bludgeoning the other side into submission by placing nearly every normal human behavior in the category of a “trigger.” For this group of people, saying a pronoun, asking for a date, opening the door for someone, wearing a certain hat, flying a flag, or singing a Christmas song have all become triggers that any caring human being should refrain from doing.

Meanwhile, extremists from the other political faction are attempting to shame the “overly sensitive” victims of trauma and violence by calling them names like “snowflake,” hinting at their extreme fragility. Rhetoric from this group commonly minimizes and denies what may be real, debilitating trauma felt by many innocent people.  

Both sides have valid points, and both sides should work to reign in their most extreme elements. Yes, it is true that anything–literally anything can become a trigger to someone who has experienced trauma. Society should be sensitive to this. But it is not productive or sane to ban benign human behavior in an attempt to guarantee no one will ever be triggered.

Some speech and behaviors, in and of themselves, are violent, degrading and inappropriate. Common sense and conscience tell us what is included in this category. Members of a civilized society have an obligation to avoid such expressions. But all other speech and behaviors, even those that can be triggering, should be processed internally by those who feel inclined to be offended or triggered. It is incumbent on the offended person to learn coping skills. Any other configuration of accountability could be destructive in our society.  

Look for Part 3 in this series: “Triggers are Opportunities.” If you have experienced triggers in your life, learn how to take advantage of them to bring more growth and healing.       

Trigger Me — I Dare You (Pt. 1)

Are triggers real? What do they mean and how do they work? Why are political factions discussing triggers? How can I deal with my triggers?

Man experiencing a trigger

Part One—The Power and Scope of Your Subconscious

Picture a cruise ship.

If you successfully pictured a cruise ship just now, ask yourself where that image came from. Where was that mental image 30 seconds ago? If you’ve taken a cruise, then surely your own memories were involved when you conjured up an image. If you have never taken a cruise, then you’ve likely seen pictures of cruise ships, or recall seeing “Titanic” or “The Love Boat” or some other program about a cruise ship.

If the ship you brought up in your mind was not in your conscious thought immediately prior to reading this article, then you have just experienced a powerful proof that you have a subconscious mind. How much of your mental “storage” is taken up by your subconscious? Imagine a large balance scale, with the weight of all your conscious thoughts on one side and all your subconscious or unconscious content on the other side. Which way would the scale lean?

Can you see that the amount of content in your subconscious mind far outweighs that of your conscious thoughts? You have a very comprehensive, emotion-filled subconscious “world” within you. Your entire history of memories, experiences, perceptions and beliefs resides largely in your subconscious, not in your conscious thoughts.

Your mental life is really divided into two different realms—on-stage and off-stage. Living and thinking is like producing a Broadway play. Most of the scenery, props and actors are off-stage waiting for their cues to perform. At any given moment, only a small percentage of the staff is on-stage reciting lines and interacting with the environment. Occasionally, an actor on stage says or does something to prompt another actor to enter “stage left.” The new actor might bring additional props or baggage from backstage with him. The new actor then recites his lines and acts out his part. Sometimes, an actor says or does something to prompt an entire change of scenery.    

How do you access this hidden, powerful dimension within? Or metaphorically speaking, how do you prompt someone or something to emerge from backstage? In your conscious, everyday world there are certain objects, words, thoughts, people, music, smells, feelings and sounds that act as little cues or “triggers” to bring things forward from backstage. This might sound mysterious, but it is the mechanism upon which the entire skill of reading is based. We train young children to associate a visual, conscious symbol (letters and words) with something in their subconscious mind. Because you are trained in that skill, when I wrote the words, “Cruise Ship” above, you opened a doorway to your subconscious. You could say that by simply writing the words, “Cruise Ship,” I “triggered” you into bringing thoughts of a cruise ship into consciousness.

A trigger is simply a stimulus leading to a doorway or portal into an internal dimension of subconscious content. When triggered, long-lost thoughts and feelings emerge to interact with your current environment. When summoned, portions of your subconscious world ideally come to the forefront–on stage to offer up the lines you need in your daily story of life. However, when those backstage characters represent trauma, shame, pain or grief, something often prevents them from coming all the way on stage. Instead, they can muck around behind the scenery, creating chaos just out of sight. The audience might hear noises or see onstage props being knocked around from behind. They might wonder what is happening to the play.

In our lives, triggered negative emotions and thoughts can cause chaos, taking over our lives as they sit just beneath the surface causing disease, anger, depression, or other problems. And because we are just as much a part of the audience as anyone else, and don’t understand what is happening, we feel blindsided by strong, chaotic feelings that seemingly come out of nowhere.

[Stay tuned on this blog for Parts two and three. You will have a better understanding of triggers and learn ways to turn triggers into opportunities for growth.]