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Therapists Get Triggered Too... or "Triggering 101"

Hello everyone! My apologies for the hiatus. I've had some life changes and something had to give, but I'm back and blog posts will be consistent again!

I wasn't sure what to write and I never write when I'm like that because if I'm not interested in what I'm writing then you definitely won't be. Buuuut, something finally brought the muse back! Hooray!

Something that has been coming up a lot in my life is the concept of "triggering." Anyone who works with trauma, reads about trauma, or has delved into it in any way will run into this term. What is "triggering?" In order for you to understand, I need to take a step back and step on my soapbox again. (You know I love trauma! Ready? Let's geek out!)

When someone is traumatized, their brain forms memories differently than it would if those awful things weren't going on at the time of encoding. Think of it as you trying to print something while the printer is shaking. It's not going to come out clearly, you're going to miss some spots, the ink may smear.. you get the point. So- when this memory isn't encoded as a full file it comes out in parts. When I'm talking to my clients, I call this  "emotional shrapnel."(For my non military, shrapnel are the pieces of stuff that a bomb leaves embedded in the things around it.) It is as if this faulty copy of the awful thing has exploded in the brain and is stuck there in different and inappropriate places. Different pieces get stuck in different places, so you may have a response when touched a certain way, when you hear a certain song, when you feel or smell something, or even on the anniversary of something. The hardest part about this is the stimulus may or may not even be related to the trigger!

"Triggering" is when something touches that sore spot, wherever and whatever it is, and there is a response. With PTSD- I see "anger" a lot. With these clients it isn't anger, but anxiety, generally from being triggered. The fight or flight switch gets hit. For example, (and this is completely fictional because I'd never divulge a client's information, even in the abstract) a client who has come home from war gets in the drive through at a restaurant. It is 102 degrees outside. He's hot and he gets impatient. His body starts to remember being overseas. It may even think he IS overseas. He honks at the car in front of him and gets more and more agitated. When you are agitated adrenaline starts surging (among other hormones, but I won't bore you). These are the same signals that happen in a crisis. His body takes this as a signal of danger. Next thing you know, he has assaulted the driver in front of him and is in trouble and cannot explain why it got that far. He gets sent to anger management. That's all well and good but it wasn't anger! (That part is true. I see this ALL THE TIME. It's frustrating. Anger management won't do anything for something that isn't anger.) If he gets a good therapist, this therapist will sort out the trigger, figure out where the pain is, give the client some tools and hopefully process whatever is stuck, and voila- a productive member of society!

When you come to a therapist, we help you with that trigger. I just want you to know that we have experienced this first hand. We know this because we have lived this. We share this awkward, painful, wonderful thing called the human experience.

I think therapy is this odd job that is both known and unknown. While we all know the basic idea of what therapy is, there are so many types, styles, and personalities, that I think it keeps an air of mystery to it. There are no witnesses except the therapist and that client. It's almost like the confessional at church- we kind of know what happens but we aren't really sure. There's this odd dynamic when people come to me that I am the expert. I always have to clarify this, and I don't mind, but I want you to know that YOU are the expert. You know yourself and your life better than anyone. We are humans, just like you!

So- I want to let you in on a not-so-secret. When you are a human being, and when you carry the weight of other human being's pain, sometimes you need a little support. There's a running joke about therapists having other therapists. That's not a joke. We totally do!

We all come to the table with our own stories, baggage, and things to work through. Sometimes, when you are going through something, we might have a lot of insight, but it can also trigger us too! I know, I know, we know it all, right? That doesn't mean our humanity doesn't bite us in the ass! We experience these things so much they even have names- "triggering" "transference" "countertransference" and we even have ethical guidelines to keep us on the straight and narrow.

So... when a therapist is triggered, what do we do? WE PRACTICE WHAT WE PREACH! (at least, ideally...) As a therapist, it is our responsibility to handle our stuff and be aware and present to make sure that it doesn't get in YOUR way when working with us. So, we do just that! We have a network of other therapists that we talk to, we may have a personal therapist, we may talk to a friend, or journal, meditate.. basically anything we teach you to do, we do! Sometimes, if it's too much, we take a responsible approach and send you to someone else- we then take note of that sore spot and work it out so it doesn't pop up again!

What's my point? I guess I just really wanted to communicate that therapy is hard! Even for us! You carry heavy things  and we will carry them with you. I feel like, we are the "experts" and it effects us too- and I just wanted you to know that. It's so hard that even the experts have to put in safeguards! The good news is that we can use this to be even better therapists. I know for me, I will flat out call myself out: "you know... I find myself really disturbed by this.. I wonder what it must be like for you?" Even our humanity is a tool for the betterment of you.

How does a therapist, or a non-therapist, know when it's time to find help for a trigger? If you can't focus. If you can't function (trouble with job, relationships, or enjoying your life in general). If you can't control yourself and find yourself in troublesome situations. If you have "weird responses" and don't know why it keeps happening. If you don't even know what will trigger you (one day it's a song, the next it's something someone said.. it's not predictable)

Basically, the answer I give you in every blog I write: If this is affecting you to the point that your quality of life is significantly affected then it is time to seek guidance.

If you're unsure, come see us! We can do a consultation and talk about it. If you are sure, find someone you can relate to and get to work! You don't have to be afraid, we know these feelings too....