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.