Trauma & PTSD

Dealing with Triggers and Redefining Productivity

(TW: Trigger Warning)

Toward the end of June, I had to remind myself again that it’s okay to be still sometimes and to not “produce.”

It’s a good reminder for me in general, as it’s my nature to go after things with passion, take on too much and be rigid with my plans.

But when my brain is waving a white flag after a trigger, as it was then, I find I need to silence the self-critical voice inside my head judging me for not being more productive — for not being able to focus on what I had been working on just prior — and notice instead what other ideas emerge from the silence when I allow myself to be still.

At that time, I had been developing a new topic for Volume Two and had begun writing down notes, excited about the conversation that it perhaps could ignite. It felt important. I was fired up. I felt good.

Then I experienced a large trigger, and all of a sudden an impenetrable wall emerged between me and that computer file of notes. I subsequently lost a week of productivity dealing with a trigger hangover. I was so frustrated and annoyed.

I experience things during the course of simply living my life that have certain elements my brain interprets as similar to the sexual assault or to a piece of the trauma that went along with it, and so then my system thinks it’s in danger again and revs up. The trigger could be a seemingly unrelated event, something I see or do, something someone else does, an item I hold, a tone of voice I hear, something I read or stream, or a sudden movement around me.

The triggers are not my fault. When they happen while I’m with people, it’s not their fault, either. There’s actually only one person to blame for them, and he’s now in prison.

So here’s an important thing to know about these triggers: I’m not always able to tell those in my life what’s going on when or after it happens, nor do I always want to or have the energy to.

I’m not sure if it works this way for other trauma survivors, but I suspect it does.

Sometimes the trigger feels so significant and precious, and I hold it close because I don’t think anyone else will get it. And trying to explain all the time feels exhausting and roll-my-eyes-and-sigh annoying. “Do I have the energy today to risk people not getting it or to risk them not seeming interested? Do I ‘trust’ today?”

Since the assault, I’ve had many people not get it, not engage or know what to say, and I’ve learned mistrust from that. When I am vulnerable with someone and I don’t get a reply or attempted connection, it’s painful. Part of it, too, is after two years I perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that people are tired of hearing about it (the “Aren’t you over it by now?” impatience that is typical in today’s world). I know every reader can relate to that from experiencing grief, trauma or other big hurts in their lives. There’s pressure to heal fast or be quiet.

I even had a healthcare provider last year command me to just, “Deal with your trauma,” so that a specific physical issue would go away. As if I don’t. As if it were that simple and straightforward.

The thing is, sexual violence is a lifetime sentence for many Survivors; we don’t just get over it. We manage it. We get help to manage it and to find some peace and healing. We get used to some of the effects. We maybe get quieter about it and more selective about with whom we discuss it because we don’t want to just be a “therapy case,” or “that friend who was assaulted.”

In the best scenario, I think, the trauma becomes part of us, but is not who we are. … This is what I’m working toward.

For me, triggers can be fleeting and obvious, ones where I notice them right away, process the sensations (often an energy wave rushes through my body, my skin feels electric, my brain is suddenly at attention) and emotions that come up (fear, anger, sadness, grief, annoyance), and then I go on with my day. The smaller ones have become familiar. I understand them.

Triggers can also be quite substantial and impact me more. But interestingly, I don’t always identify the bigger ones as they happen or even right after, and this is probably what’s confusing for those around me. I just notice all of a sudden I feel different, or feel some kind of huge emotion or perhaps feel shut-down. Sometimes it’s only after several hours of feeling subsequent symptoms that I realize I’ve been triggered.

I’ll feel exhausted but can’t relax, my heart rate is usually high, and my brain feels fuzzy and swirly and floating, yet at the same time heavy and saturated – like it has presence and significant weight.

“Ah, OK. That’s what happened.”

When I finally figure out the connection, what set me off, I feel relieved there’s a specific reason I feel the way I do.

I don’t tend to recover from these triggers quickly. I get a trigger hangover that usually lasts a few days. Really bad ones can affect me for weeks, though I haven’t experienced those in a while.

During a trigger hangover, I usually need quiet and more unstructured time. My brain is in a different state, recovering from the overload. I’m tired, it’s harder to concentrate in an analytical or organizational way, my moods fluctuate, many times I feel down, I’m more hyper-vigilant and sensitive, and I’m less trusting and thus pull inward. As a consequence, I’m also not super productive in the way I usually define it, and if I try to force myself to be, it’s fruitless and I just feel more blocked and frustrated and self-critical.

What I’ve gotten better at remembering more quickly these days is that it’s okay to let my brain calm down and process things and concentrate on tasks and activities more suited to where my brain is at that point. Don’t get me wrong: I still get mad about it and feel panicky I’m losing time. But I realize I am making progress, just different progress, and I hope someday I will learn to let go and really lean into these periods.

I journal, read, cook, work in the garden, take photos, write, sometimes do artsy things, do yoga. For work, I do tasks that are more mindless or that are the joyful parts of my jobs; I read and get lost in research and words; I buy inventory for my book business; I post on my social media business sites; I clean one thing mindfully in my office. I let myself float from one activity to the next, without a to-do list. I save the accounting, organizing, calls, e-mails and projects for another day.

Sometimes, too, I just crave doing nothing. My brain desires being free from any assignment, to purely rest.

I’ve found that if I allow myself to be quiet instead of forcing things, I recover more quickly and as a bonus often get insights about certain trauma and non-trauma things. I notice beauty and simple things and create words and sentences and art that fills my gas tank. And often, I get ideas, better ideas, more ideas. Each moment of quiet helps me find my way back.

I give myself what I need. I follow the path that leads toward creativity, rather than the path of productivity.

The accompanying art is by a local Latina artist.