Triggered!

Triggered!

A word. A song. A thought. A smell. 

Goodtherapy.org defines triggers as “a reminder of a past trauma.” 

If you have ever taken a course in Psychology, you’ll remember how Pavlov taught us about triggers in a roundabout way. 

Remember the dog, the steak, and the bell, right? Well if you don’t here’s a quick rundown of the experiment in a nutshell: Pavlov trained a dog to associate the sound of a bell with eating a piece of meat. So, every time the dog heard the bell, he knew he was getting food. Pavlov trained this dog so that the sound of the bell caused the dog to salivate because it already knew that food was coming. Here’s where the real experiment kicked in. Pavlov stopped giving the steak to the dog when the bell rang but the dog would still salivate when he heard the bell even though he wouldn’t receive any food. He conditioned the dog to continue the response even when the reward or secondary stimuli was no longer present.

Basically, when we are triggered by an event, an object or a sound, it is because we have classical conditioned or trained ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, to associate that particular stimuli with a person, place, or event that brings about some type of emotional response, usually a negative one. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a such thing as positive triggers. However, how often do you hear someone say that they are triggered, and it be a good thing? Right, almost never. 

Enough of the psych lesson, let’s get into it! How do we develop these triggers and how can we become “untriggered?” 

Remember the first time you were riding in the car with THAT person and THAT song came on? You both looked at each other all hazily and you felt butterflies. THAT feeling you felt at THAT moment with THAT song and THAT person in THAT car was so intense that every time you hear THAT song you immediately get butterflies even if THAT person isn’t present. *takes deep breath* Get it?

So now time has passed and y’all broke up and you hear the song, what happens? You probably cry, get sad or even mad. Why? Because your brain along with that emotional response trained you to associate that song with that particular person. However, now that person is no longer a positive association. You still get that intense feeling, only now that feeling is sadness, hurt or even anger depending on the breakup. When the song comes on it changes from a positive emotional response to a negative one, which is what we call a trigger. Now when you hear it you automatically skip it or just turn it off all together. A lot of times this negative association takes time to lose its intensity because we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to process through what has become an unintentional trigger. 

Let me give you a working example. A close friend of mine was killed in a car accident when I was in college. I went to his funeral and heard a song that made me cry uncontrollably because it prompted me to think about how great of a friend that I had lost. Every time I heard that song after the funeral, it immediately brought me to tears to the point where I would slam the radio off and just ruminate in my grief. I finally realized how ridiculous it was that this one song essentially caused me so much anger because of how sad I was that I had lost my friend. (Yes, unresolved sadness can lead to anger). 

So, here’s what I did…I let the song play out. Who would have known?! I cried uncontrollably and processed through my feelings mentally to understand why this song triggered me to this extent. Understanding how immensely his death affected me was part of the processing. After a few plays of the song at various times over a period of time, I finally got to the point that I wouldn’t boo hoo cry anymore but I might tear up. Eventually I was able to hear the song and not feel the urge to cry at all, but even to this day I do still think about him when the song comes on. I would agree that time does heal all wounds but putting a band-aid on a wound without giving it the proper attention leaves an unsightly scar.

So, what are you saying? Well, when we are triggered by various stimuli, it is because we have not allowed ourselves to fully experience the negative emotions that we have associated with that stimuli. Nor have we taken the time to dissociate the feeling from the stimuli. It’s almost as if we have to place blame on something and we use the stimuli as that “thing” because it’s easier to get rid of the stimuli than it is to address the feeling. We turn the song off. We change the channel. We walk the opposite direction. We do anything to ignore/avoid that feeling. So, what if instead of ignoring the trigger in hopes of it just going away on its own, we talked to it? We ask ourselves some hard questions and challenge ourselves to actually answer thoughtfully.

DISCLAIMER: If you have experienced severe trauma, I DO NOT recommend that you attempt to do this on your own. This could bring up highly negative emotions that would be important to process with a trained mental health profession. Please seek professional help.

Here are a few questions that you might ask yourself to get started:

1. What about this *insert stimuli* is causing me to feel this *insert emotion*? 

– Why are you associating these two variables in the first place? Reflect on the event that occurred that led to this pairing.

2. What is causing me to feel this particular emotion?

– What was the actual action that triggered this emotional response? Think about your initial reaction to this action and determine if it is the same response or a similar one. If so, this usually means that you are still carrying the weight of the initial incident and have not worked through what happened.

3. Is there an underlying emotion that I could be feeling that I am not addressing?

– For example, you are angry that your ex cheated on you but what you might actually feeling is hurt or even insecure. Usually there are underlying components to anger that take a bit more digging to be able to find the root.

3. What happened in the situation that truly hurt me? 

– Address the actual emotion and sit with it for a moment. When we sit with our feelings it allows us to become more comfortable with them and also be more aware when those feelings come up again later on. This way we are better able to address them at the onset the next time.

4. How can I resolve that feeling?

– This is where some handy dandy coping skills comes in to play. Write about it. I have a slew of journals laying around ready to be used at any given moment. Think of it as a weapon, but a peaceful one.

-Also talk about it. Whether it be with your friends, family or a bonafide mental health professional, verbally processing with someone can help to ease the emotions a lot quicker and more effectively than holding it in.

-Grounding! Remind yourself that you are no longer in the place and time that is bringing up that emotional response. Take deep breaths. Touch things around you. Here is a great link to some other grounding techniques. (Don’t mistake grounding for escape. It is more commonly used to bring you into the present moment until you are more emotionally able to address that feeling.)

5. What is a positive emotion, if any, that I can put in place of the negative one?

– For example, replace hurt with strength. This particular time for you was difficult to overcome but you did! So now if something similar or of lesser magnitude were to occur, then you would be able to overcome it with slightly more ease.

– Try reconditioning your brain to think about a happy time in your life when you hear that triggering song come on. Or maybe when you get a whiff of a smell that reminds you of a traumatic event, start to associate the smell with something more enjoyable like your favorite hobby. Do this for awhile until you no longer associate that song or smell with the negative emotion.  

As with everything in life, you have to find what works for you. Take the time to really become aware of what you need emotionally and figure out what your triggers are. Ask yourself these questions and genuinely and intuitively take the time to answer them. How do you deal with your triggers?

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The Public Ain’t the Enemy, It’s the Inner Me

The Public Ain’t the Enemy, It’s the Inner Me

How do you talk to yourself? What does hour inner voice sound like?

Are you a Sinclair James or are you a Regina George?

Is your “inner you” direct, yet compassionate and encouraging. Or, is your inner voice continuously hurling insults and reminding you of your past mistakes?

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how destructive my inner voice was. I would constantly dwell on the past, what I did wrong, or what I could have done better. It wasn’t the normal “oh no, that wasn’t it sis” kind of voice. It was more of a “you’re not good enough” voice.

When I found myself in a dark place, I realized that those voices weren’t even mine. They were the voices of some bad ass kid in my 5th grade class, or my mother scolding me; an old boss, or an ex from when things didn’t work out. I went through my entire life internalizing all of the negative comments and interactions that I believed it and they turned into baseless insecurities. So much so, that I began telling myself those same things, and some even worse.

When I had Bash prematurely was when my inner voice was on level apeshit, and not in a good way. My “inner me” spouted negativity and blame and questioned how good of a mother I was for going into preterm labor. It sounds absolutely ridiculous since I know that it was completely out of my control, but at the time, I believed it.

Fast forward to the end of last year/beginning of this year, “inner me” was at it again; and it had gotten worse. I was in my last semester of grad school for counseling and “inner me” was doubtful that I would finish my last few months in order to graduate. This time, the voice was not doubting that I could do the work. It was the thought that “nothing good happens to me” and I just knew something was going to happen that would cause me not to finish, even after I devoted the last year and a half to this program. I questioned my ability to be a counselor and beat myself up for even getting into this program, and now questioning if this field of work was really right for me. “Inner me” even convinced me that no one cared about me and to cut myself off from the outside world and go into hiding.

I complied.

The way that I saw myself was completely against everything that I knew to be. Although I am very critical of myself, my strength was always the balance between the “inner me” and reality. I could not, for the literal life of me, muster up the strength to quiet that negative inner voice but instead allowed it to take full reign over my life.

One day, something clicked, and I realized how far gone I was. I realized that something had to give, and Bash should not have to watch his mother cry and seclude herself every day. I knew he deserved better, but I was so deep into that negative space that I didn’t even know where to begin. I had to actively and forcefully pull myself out of that hole by constantly combatting that negative voice with positive affirmations. That was the easy part. The hard part was believing them.

I began listening to inspirational videos and podcasts. I researched the way that I was feeling and seeing if there was anyone else that felt the same way. I took notes on how they battled those insecurities and the negative inner voice and slowly began to mimic them until I was able to believe and establish my own personal life mantras. I found outlets for those negative thoughts in journaling and calmed them by guided meditations. I looked at my many accomplishments thus far, rather than live in the blunders that actually led me to most of those accomplishments.

For so much of my life I blamed other people for the way that they treated me without recognizing how I was mistreating myself. I had to accept the mistakes that I have made along my journey and understand that my value and my self-worth is not a direct reflection of those mistakes. I converted my inner Regina George into my inner Sinclair James and now “woo woo woo” myself through difficult situations, while only allowing Regina to make seasonal cameos. Balance, right?

Taming my inner voice is a constant task but one that I now see as habitual and a positive practice for maintaining my mental health.

If you could give your inner voice a physical representation, who would it be? Is it positive or negative? How does your inner voice impact and guide your life and your daily interactions?

Speak Over Yourself

Speak Over Yourself

This week, I have been completely blocked. I have had so many thoughts running through my head. I knew what I wanted to say, but for the life of me, I could not seem to formulate my words in a way that made sense on paper. I attempted to yoga, meditate, sit in silence and process it out, but none of it seemed to work. I even thought maybe if I wash my hair, do an “extreme clean” of my home, and burn some essential oils, then it will help declutter my mind. So close, but it still did not seem to loosen that ball of cerebral chaos that continued to plague my thought process.

After my many efforts to decompress, I finally sat and thought to myself, “what could it really be that is preventing me from being mentally free?” Each one of these thoughts that I was having were intertwining into the other, which was causing me to lack confidence in my understanding of my own purpose and passion, and placed holes in my decision-making. I began to sink back into that forbidden place of doubt and insecurity that I found myself in not too long ago. I had to remind myself of my abilities and reaffirm my strengths. This is some of what I reminded myself:

  • I am strong, but I am not superhuman.
  • My vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but a sign of growth and maturity.
  • I am intelligent. I am educated. But I still have a hell of a lot to learn.
  • With growth comes discomfort and irritability. However, the way in which I embrace it will only make my experiences more worthwhile.
  • Just because things are not going as planned does not mean that they are not working together for the better.
  • Where I am now is not an indicator of where I am going to be. This era is simply a stepping stone to set the stage for my future success.
  • I will not let time be a determining factor of my progress. However, I will measure my progress purely based on my comfort in my growth and my experiences. Time will only be a measure of duration.
  • If I remain open to change and positive progress, the possibilities are endless.
  • I will not succumb to my negative thinking. I will use those thoughts as motivation for understanding of myself and my circumstances to push me to the next level of my awareness.

What are your “I” statements? How do you affirm yourself regularly? When you are stuck in a mental rut, what pulls you out? I would love to hear your process!

In the Lonely Hour

In the Lonely Hour

Recently, I went through a rough time mentally and emotionally; it even affected me physically at times. I began to do a lot of questioning. And not the healthy questioning where it’s progressive and forward thinking. This questioning was heavily weighted in the negativity of my past decisions, mistakes and even incidents that I had absolutely no control over, that I somehow blamed myself for. The questioning turned into doubt, which turned into accepting fault, which then turned into shame and eventually self-hatred for allowing myself to be in a place in life that did not completely satisfy me.

This constant battle with myself turned into days, then weeks, and when it went on more than a month, I knew something wasn’t right. I knew this was not normal for me. I question and wonder and brainstorm all the time about where I am in life, but I somehow always got a grip and pep talked my way back to positivity and purpose. This time, it was no talking myself out of anything. I honestly felt like I lost control of my own thoughts and feelings to the point that I sincerely thought that the world would be better off without me. I closed myself to the outside world and allowed my thoughts to consume me. Even though I never acted on those feelings, the mere thought of me allowing such a permanent reaction to occupy my mental space makes me cringe and thank God that I was able to work towards healing.

For the most part, I felt like I could handle it and that I was going to come out of this “funk” on my own. One day, when my feelings, thoughts and tears were trying to come out of me like vomit, I knew trying to resolve this on my own was no longer an option. I needed help. Nearing the completion of my master’s degree in counseling, I knew I had all the tools to “fix” myself. However, seeing as I’m kind of biased when it comes to my own thoughts makes complete sense why counseling myself does not necessarily work. And I can’t “bounce” ideas off of myself because well, that’s even more ridiculous. I finally got the courage to contact a therapist. I NEEDED this! And to be quite honest, I don’t know where I would be right now if I didn’t make that phone call.

I went to 2 out of the 4 free sessions that were offered and already felt a weight lifted and a clearer perspective on what it was that was troubling me. I would not recommend discontinuing therapy prematurely; however, I felt that it was just what I needed for my brain to snap into recovery mode. My therapist was very helpful identifying trends in my past behaviors and experiences that I had not quite noticed, as well as validating my views on where some of these feelings may have stemmed from. Speaking these feelings out loud to someone that did not know me, put things into perspective and established some circular causality that I was able to slowly unravel.

I say all of that to say, ASK FOR HELP! It’s no easy feat, but neither is battling feelings that seem impossible to put into words. If you find it as difficult to tell someone that you need help as I did, there are 3 words that I knew I could say that would help spark a conversation with someone that was willing to listen: I’M NOT OKAY. We are all fighting a battle that no one knows anything about. So I urge you to maintain awareness of your moods and thoughts; watch for warning signs in your behaviors and interactions with others and listen to your gut!

I will be following this post up with tips and strategies for finding the best therapist for you and what to expect when starting the therapeutic process.

Feel free to comment your thoughts and ask questions for clarity. I would love to hear your feedback!

Can I Get A Refill?

Can I Get A Refill?

Recognizing that there is work to be done is the first step. Going in and repairing the damage of your previous years, sometimes your entire existence, is next. That feeling alone will literally take everything out of you. As I began the process of reprogramming my brain to think, feel, act and react in different, more healthy ways, it felt like everything I knew was being stripped from me. Because it is!

As we grow up, we acquire a series of learned behaviors such as, how we deal with feelings, what we believe and especially how we cope. At some point, we have to realize that what we were taught is not working and we have to have a desire to change that. Well I realized that a long time ago, but for some reason, I didn’t want to change. It was my comfort zone. It was my defense mechanism. It was even fun to me sometimes. My coping strategies were fun. Not to mention reckless and stupid, but to me, they were still fun. It was only recently that I saw something better for myself. The desire to change was now something I craved. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life being pissed off from things that happened previously in my life that I had yet to tap into. I didn’t want to see people that I love die without being able to mend those deep-rooted issues that we would just act like never happened. I want to know what it’s like to be completely mentally and emotionally free: not allowing others to control me with one slip of the tongue or by reliving past experiences that I have not quite dealt with.

This process has almost felt like an exorcism; like my “soul” is being ripped from my body. (Of course, I’m assuming that’s what it feels like based on scary movies.) It’s painful. It’s depressing. It oftentimes left me feeling depleted and empty. But as I look back and think of the process and the growth that I have seen within myself, that was never my soul that was being taken from me. That was my body rejecting that emotional confusion that I have accrued over the span of my lifetime and is now making room for balance, for emotional understanding, for thoughtfulness, for expressiveness, and most importantly, for healing.

How will you replenish what has just been emptied?