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Triggers and Healing: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog

“A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback, transporting the person back to the event of his/her original trauma. The survivor may begin to avoid situations and stimuli that they think triggered the flashback. They may react to this flashback, trigger with an emotional intensity similar to that at the time of the trauma. A person’s triggers are activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.”1

This article is about triggers and it may trigger readers, so please go slow and back away if you need to for self care.

I have had over five years of therapy, speak publically at least twice a month, write over two dozen articles a year and hear from survivors every day, yet I still find I get emotionally triggered at times. We moved back to Portland recently and I found a street near our apartment that made my stomach get in a knot every time I drove there. There is a retirement center on that street where my abuser took me once. I waited in the car while he went in. I don’t remember what happened before or after that stop, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good. The memory makes me feel like someone else’s property. A thing.

Since my realization, I have made it a point to go to the coffee shop across the street from that center to change how I feel about being in that place on earth and to take back my power. I don’t want him to own that space or me. 

Two days ago, my wife and I drove to the Oregon Coast. She drove a route that took us through Corvallis where we both attended college. I originally went there six months after my abuse ended. I have discussed this period in my life with my therapist and written about it in my book, but when we drove down that road I went to a place I did not remember. I felt overwhelming despair and oppression. Even my breathing became shallow. I don’t think in all my recovery work I have ever really gotten in touch with just how disconnected I was, with no direction or grounding, and completely out of control. In hindsight understanding that explains a lot.

It turns out that one of my longest standing triggers (and most destructive) has been my aversion to people who I perceive have power over me. I have changed careers six times. Each time I felt like power was being used over me, I literally walked away from everything, including moving my family to a different town. 

I recently found myself in a similar situation and, with the help of some loving friends and family, I changed my response. I sat down with the person in power and told them how it made me feel and then a true miracle happened. I set limits. I told them what I needed going forward. I actually protected myself in a healthy way. 

Remember in the first paragraph how there is a tendency for survivors to avoid activities that trigger their trauma? In my life, I want to identify my triggers so I can learn to change the outcomes. There are places no one should have to go, especially without support. Safety is critical to address these issues. For me it feels like the right time, and I have the need to go back to reclaim my life. I need those pieces to feel whole again. A healing journey leads to hope and grace. May it be so.

1 PsychCentral. “What is a Trigger?”

Read more on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog

– By Randy Ellison

Speaker, writer and author of the book Boys Don’t Tell: Ending the Silence of Abuse, Randy Ellison is a child sexual abuse victim’s advocate and an activist promoting cultural change working with local, state and national organizations. He addresses abuse prevention and healing for survivors from a survivor’s perspective. Randy is a member of the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force. He is a founding member and former board president of OAASIS, Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service.

Randy recently received the Diane Sandler Award for his work in education, awareness and prevention of sexual violence in Southern Oregon. 

The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives.

1in6s mission also includes serving family members, friends, and partners by providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.

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The views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Joyful Heart Foundation or 1in6.