Please note that this is a two-part series. Check out part 1 here.
In our last installment, we talked about why parent-related trauma is a special kind of terrible, why regular coping strategies may not work for them, and why we might not be able to talk our way into feeling better. If you haven’t read that first, I really do strongly encourage you to do so before continuing. Everything I say here will make a lot more sense. Plus, you get some juicy background info on why I’m such a…we’ll say, “character.”
Now that you’ve done that (right?), let’s try addressing trauma triggers differently.
Reframe “triggered” as “experiencing a flare-up.”
Are you starting to hate the word “trigger(ed)”? Yeah, you and a lot of people. It’s been co-opted, vilified, and made the butt of oh, so many jokes. When someone wants to tear you down, especially on the Internet, all they have to do is cry “tRiGgEreD!” and then run away feeling like an edgelord badass. By lumping folks with PTSD symptoms in with people who disagree with you on how satisfying the Game of Thrones ending was, we minimize real pain and cause harm to the mental health community. But since there’s no unringing that bell, let’s take back some power and reframe the conversation.
Instead, try thinking of trauma as a kind of emotional autoimmune disease. When you have an autoimmune disease, your body gets confused about what’s a threat and what’s not, and it starts attacking itself for no good reason. Sound familiar? That’s exactly what our brains do when we have experienced trauma. We get confused, we lash out, sometimes we waste away.
Like Lupus, Celiac, MS, etc, trauma can sometimes be managed with medical intervention and lifestyle changes, but even when it’s well-managed, there is always the potential for a flare–a sudden worsening of symptoms that causes the person significant distress. It’s never completely cured. It’s a forever thing. To take the metaphor a little further, there is actually a strong link between trauma and actual autoimmune disease.
I sure am, Eddie. Specifically, there is a really high co-occurrence between childhood trauma and an autoimmune disease diagnosis later in life.
You wouldn’t roll your eyes at someone who can’t get out of bed due to a flare in physical pain. You wouldn’t laugh at someone who is vomiting profusely due to eating an inflammatory food. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for needing to call the doctor, adjust your meds, or cancel a commitment due to muscle spasms. Give yourself and others the same kind of grace for a trauma flare-up. We’re doing the best we can. And I promise you, we know our best is shitty right now. We are painfully aware.
Here’s what you can do to help a loved one through a trauma flare:
The neurotypicals are rejoicing. Yay, finally something we can do to FIX ALL THE THINGS! Here is how you can help yourself or someone else get back to feeling STELLAR:
Self-Care/Sleep. Do things that make you feel safe and nurtured. That could be as simple as watching a favorite movie or as big as going away for a weekend to clear your head. For me, the biggest piece of the puzzle is sleep. I usually need a really big emotional purge (the kind of crying that exhausts your physical body) and a really deep sleep. Which makes sense because we process negative emotions in REM sleep. Once I do those things, I can get back on track.
Take things off the plate. If this is for yourself, cancel that thing you don’t want to do. Say no, with not one single fuck given. The laundry will keep. The kids can eat cereal for dinner (it’s fortified with vitamins and minerals, for heaven’s sake; it’s practically salad!). If this is for someone else, imagine they have the flu. Can you watch their kids for a few hours? Order a pizza so it just materializes at the front door? Our minds are achingly full in this state. Anything at all you can do to lift the mental burden is so helpful. This applies triply for mothers.
Express love physically, maybe. In part one (see, this is why you should have read it), I mentioned how words, however well-intended, can exacerbate the spiral. Hugs and other physical touch, on the other hand, can be delightful, because it circumvents the verbal part of my brain that wants to argue against anyone speaking love and light into the void. It’s a primitive expression of love and safety that I can process better in that state. This only works if (OMG THIS IS THE BIGGEST IF) that sounds good to the hurting person. Not sure? ASK, and respect the answer. Don’t go around forcing hugs on people processing trauma. Please.
Look for warning signs. Are they talking about people being better off without them? Are they engaging in self-harm? Do they have plans to engage in self-harm? Do any of these things describe you? Stop reading this list and call someone way more qualified than a blogger who dropped out of college twice. Now. Go. We need you.
Listen. Hey there, support person, you’re already not talking, right? Awesome. If they need to talk, just listen. I bet you want to offer a solution so badly you’re about to fall off your chair. That’s fine. Go ahead and fall. It might even make your hurting person laugh. But don’t offer anything resembling a solution until they ask.
Avoid judgement. This goes for everyone. We’re not judging ourselves for how we feel when we’re in crisis. That is canceled. Now, if you say or do hurtful things in the throes of a flare-up, you’re going to have to take ownership and make amends. But you worry about that when you can think clearly again; I bet the urge will come naturally. Support people, if you find yourself hearing some wild, self-deprecating or otherwise startling talk, do your very best to reserve judgment. The person you know and love is in there right now, but they’re not at the controls. Trauma’s just in there mashing buttons, and it can talk a lot of smack. For the love of everything, do NOT hang on to whatever they said in the midst of a PTSD meltdown as ammunition to throw back in their face later. That’s a low blow.
Reflect on what the next steps should be. I’ve used a whole lot of words to normalize and explain some of this stuff, and mostly we’ve focused on crisis management. But this should not be a way of life. It sucks for the person experiencing it. It sucks for the support people. It sucks for anyone who is missing out on your awesomeness while you are trying to Humpty-Dumpty yourself back together. Once you’re coming out of crisis mode, think about what you’re going to do to make it a really long time before you go back. Ask yourself if it’s time to go to therapy (spoiler: it is!). If you’re on meds, see if you need them adjusted. If a certain person or situation triggers your flares, consider cutting contact. Boundaries, when used appropriately, are not malicious; they are a gift you give yourself out of love.
And there we have it! A new way to frame our trauma experiences, and a snappy acronym to help you help yourself or others. I would love to hear from anyone else who has a plan that works for trauma flare-ups. I will totally rework the acronym, especially if we can make a more hilarious word. Let me know in the comments, or hit me up on social media if you want a more in-depth conversation. If we work together, we’re gonna crush this healing and living life thing.
As for my friend, he came out of his polar plunge into the void. He slept hard (see?) and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to get back to his regularly scheduled awesomeness. I hope he’ll take the rest of my advice and call his therapist for a tune-up. I’m doing that this week, myself. And I hope he’ll consider blocking this woman’s number from his phone. We do not owe our unwavering loyalty to people who continually and casually cause us harm.
Parental relationships may be complex, but they are still relationships, and you have a say in how they play out, and how much access you allow. Even if you were taught long ago that your feelings don’t matter, they do matter. Your peace matters. It’s okay to set boundaries to protect yourself. You probably couldn’t do that as a child, but you can do it now. Take back your power. It’s time.