Mindful Monday: Mindful When Triggered

I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t focus. I certainly couldn’t sleep. The power was not out yet but it was imminent. There was no danger, but my body was already starting to adapt to the threat. Should I fight, flight or freeze? It did not matter that the power was to be shut off for preventitive measures – not for a real threat of fire. My body remembered the danger. The fires, the smoke, the darkness, the date, the time. And, even though I KNOW about triggers, I KNOW about trauma, I KNOW about my amygdala being turned on and wanting to ready for danger, it didn’t stop my body from reacting. Most of my clients over the following three days expressed an increase in anxiety, nervousness, hypervigilence. Their bodies also remembered the catastrophic fires of 2017 in Sonoma/Napa County. They re-told their stories of flight the week of the fires. They were preparing for danger, as was I, even though we were safe. Even days later, with the power back on, on a hike amidst the charred trees burned 2 years ago, I felt another wave of adrenalin. I literally felt my energy scatter.

Noticing our own triggers is the first step in calming and grounding. Being able to identify the scattered energy, inattentiveness, racing thoughts, inability to focus and sleep, edginess and irritability are crucial to re-centering. Noticing without judgement, without shame is the key. 

Understanding and accepting that – even without real-time danger or threat – our bodies remember the previous danger and traumas. Our bodies are wired to protect. It is truly a remarkable system when it works correctly. Unfortunately, with repeated trauma, the system often misfires and we over or under-react to stressors. We are not broken. We are not sick or ill or disordered. We are coping the best we can and our systems need some updating. 

Offering ourselves compassion comes next. Just as we would comfort a child who is frightened in the dark, we need to comfort ourselves. Being kind, patient, understanding and gentle with ourselves is essential. We often go into shame and judgement,  “this is just a power outage, what is the big deal – there is no fire” instead of “wow, my body is remembering the fires from 2 years ago and I’m agitated” and then making a cup of tea, taking deep breaths, listening to soothing music and reminding ourselves that we are safe. 

Paying attention to when the trigger has ended. Oftentimes we move unconsciously from being triggered to not being triggered and we don’t understand why we are so “moody”. Part of where trauma hooks us is when we forget to acknowledge when it is over – when we are safe. Even if the power outage was not a trauma, if our bodies reacted as if it was, it is important to consciously acknowledge the event is over. Breathe. Restore to safety. And remember, just as I was re-triggered by seeing the burned trees days after the power outage, we are often on high-alert for awhile after a triggering event. Restoring to safety may be an ongoing practice for awhile. While hiking, I practiced bringing myself back to the hike – I took photos, named the sensations I was experiencing, looked outward and named the sights and sounds on my hike – tree, stone, weed, bird chirping, lizard.

Being grateful for our resilience, our bodies, our minds, our undeniable spirits. We are extraordinary beings with complex systems and just like any system or machine, our bodies, minds and spirit need a little maintenance and updating from time to time. Be gentle, be kind and be grateful for your being.