Dealing With Triggers of Abuse

Jan 23rd, 2012 | By | Category: All Posts, Christina's Blog

by Christina Enevoldsen

I’ve loved horror films since I was a child. Even though I wasn’t allowed to see them, something about those stories resonated with me and I managed to watch them anyway. Through them, I was able to express what I couldn’t even acknowledge to myself, the terror of a childhood haunted by sexual abuse.  Scary movies confirmed that monsters really do exist, which I knew all too well.

The part that frightened me the most was watching the girl curiously walk toward the strange noises. Her companions disappeared, her candle flickered, and still she crept forward. I always squirmed in my seat, yelling at the screen, willing her to turn around, “DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!!!”

When it comes to healing from sexual abuse, I’m the girl determined to search out the mysteries behind the door, but I’m also the audience member pleading with the girl to run in the opposite direction.

I recognize that the only way to stop being haunted from the ghosts of the past is to confront them. When something triggers me—a smell, a person, a situation, a touch, a place, a word—part of me is a Ghost-Buster, hunting down the things that threaten my peace. But when I walk down the dark corridor of a long-forgotten memory, another part of me wants to run away.

Before I’m even conscious of being triggered, the child within me fights as though it’s a life and death struggle and screams, “You’re going to die! Get away now!” To her, the trauma is ongoing and the threat is current. In that moment, it’s not merely a memory, it’s happening now.

In reality, it’s not the yelling that hinders me, but something much quieter; the little girl in me defends herself in the only way she ever could—through  dissociation, denial and repression. I crave food when I’m not hungry, I suddenly feel an overwhelming need for sleep, I feel compelled to clean or to do some other kind of work, anything to escape.

From her perspective, everything is bigger and more powerful so running away from triggers is the only option. That was true then, but that’s not true any more. Running away doesn’t save me anymore; facing the memories that are triggered is the only thing that can save me now.

My adult-self knows that if I’m triggered at all, I am ready to face those things.  I may not feel ready, but just as my mind locked this away so long ago for my benefit, it’s unlocking it at this time for my benefit.

The things I feel are what I would have felt during the abuse if I had been “present” enough to fully feel. It would have been too much for the child-me so I hid the feelings away for another time.  And the time is now.

Even if I mentally will myself to pursue what dwells in the shadows of my mind, all my senses tell me it’s too much for me. My child-self was all alone and never comforted during the original abuse and she (I) still needs nurturing support.

When I feel overwhelmed, I do things to comfort myself before I move forward:

  • Deep breathing calms me. When I’m stressed I hold my breath, which creates more stress. Deep breathing gives me the nourishing oxygen my body needs and it helps me to focus on the here and now.
  • Sometimes, I withdraw in solitude to feel safe and other times, I reach out to supportive friends.  Alone or with someone else, I listen to myself with understanding and compassion and let myself be loved.
  • I listen to my thoughts and feelings, whether they seem to make sense or not.  Many times, I hear phrases that sound very juvenile.  I recognize that they are feelings from the small child who never had a voice. Listening tells me that the things that happened to me really matter and that I matter.
  • I write down what I remember.  Many times, I don’t feel any specific emotions until I write things out. There’s something about seeing it on paper or on the screen that connects me to my feelings and I’m able to acknowledge them, express them and release them.  Sometimes I can’t cry, but it feels good to moan or to rock myself.

Once I comfort my inner child, I take her by the hand and we go through the door together. She shows me the horrors that happened there and I verify that they are every bit as awful as she believes them to be.  My presence in her pain and fear allow her to join me in the present and to see that the monsters are long gone and it’s only the echoes from the past that we’ve been hearing. Behind the door, I don’t find death; I find my healing and my life.

Now that you’ve heard my experience and thoughts about this, I’d love to hear yours. Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to partake in the discussion.

Related Posts:
Forgetting About Abuse: Who Does That Really Serve?
Why Was I Afraid of Healing From Sexual Abuse?
Dead Silence: Killing My Voice
Coping or Copping Out?
Finding My Lost Childhood After Sexual Abuse
My Fear of Being Alone

Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.

[read Christina's story here]

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40 comments
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  1. Hi Christina
    This is a great post and it reminds me of how I was raised to be in denial in the first place. The grooming process itself requests that we deny our own feelings, fears, horrors and sadness. “Triggers” serve to bring up all those warnings that were so much a part of childhood for survivors. My mind sends off the alert… “warning warning this is not safe to feel” I had to learn to override the system. The system itself was a lie. I had to learn that these triggers held so many keys to my recovery. I love how you write about looking at them. I always try to keep in mind that in all things, the truth will set me free. It goes against what I was taught my whole life, so it is a tough one… but today I know that triggers are my friend too.
    Hugs, Darlene

  2. Darlene,
    That’s so true about how we come to deny our own feelings and experiences in the first place. It’s crazy-making to groom a child that way. That’s why I related so much to horror films (and TV shows like “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time”. Just like adults denied the existence of monsters, they denied the existence of abuse. I saw things that were so unbelievable, but they really happened. How is a child supposed to deal with that?

    Thanks for sharing your insight!
    Hugs, Christina

  3. I think that is what is at the root of the whole problem ~ a child CAN’T possibly deal with that so as children we learn coping methods. And those coping methods (survival mode in childhood) become another part of the problem when we grow up. And the triggers serve to drive us back to the survivor mode/coping methods which served us in childhood but don’t serve us in adulthood. (and the adults taught us that it is better to deny) so… Round and round it goes until survivor meets sites like ours and truth tellers like us… delivering the message that serves to bust through the fog of coping methods… inject the truth, and presto..(well not really presto but eventually) the survivor emerges a thriver and because of the truth, the world makes sense again!
    Hugs and smiles!
    Darlene

  4. Darlene,
    EXACTLY! A child can’t possibly deal with that, but as adults we CAN! Thanks for sharing the truth through exposing how the lies began in the first place.
    Love and hugs,
    Christina

  5. I started trauma work about six months ago. I am still caught in the feelings of needing and wanting to die. When I try to write anything down, all I feel is terror that it could be found. I am constantly dissociating, switching, wanting to self-harm, and feeling suicidal. My psychologist is wonderful, compassionate, supportive, and encourages me to “go very slowly.” Presently I am feeling so overwhelmed and overloaded, sad and suicidal, and drained.

    Ronnie

  6. Ronnie,
    I’m glad you have someone you trust to help you through those feelings. What does your psychologist suggest to you when you feel overwhelmed?
    Healing hugs,
    Christina

  7. Christina,
    Triggers… Just when I think there isn’t anything left to trigger that I have not already been through before, something new pops up. It has been a while, but I had a very difficult time recently due to an unexpected trigger. You said: “Before I’m even conscious of being triggered, the child within me fights as though it’s a life and death struggle and screams, “You’re going to die! Get away now!” To her, the trauma is ongoing and the threat is current. In that moment, it’s not merely a memory, it’s happening now.” – The “it’s happening now” this time came with a new level of fear requiring every coping skill possible to survive it.

    And, oh Darlene, you are so right when you say, “Round and round it goes until survivor meets sites like ours and truth tellers like us… delivering the message that serves to bust through the fog of coping methods” – Sometimes just coping is all we can do until we can face the fear and find a way to abolish it, and it is my connection with the “truth tellers” that give me strength to face my fears.

    Thankful for all who have the courage to share and for making the journey a little easier!

  8. Christina,

    I seem to be locked into trauma pain that i cannot get out of. Its not like i am reliving the trauma over and over again but the pain of trauma (not just sexual abuse) – a very abusive childhood overall – is there every morning when i wake up. right away i feel emotional pain. this has been going on for years. Its like something gets release during the night while i am sleeping and then in the morning boom ! – the pain is right there on the surface. Again – this has been my life for several years. I have been in therapy for about 15 years and have been taking an anti-depressant for about 4 years. I saw a grief therapist last week to deal with some recent losses and she thinks maybe i need a different medication. I am going to look for a new psychiatrist also. I just know its not normal to cry every day and wake up in emotional pain every morning -would really appreciate your thoughts on this ?

    thanks !

  9. Faith,
    Yes, even knowing that the coping methods that saved me when i was a child are part of what limits me now, they aren’t something that can just be shed overnight. Just like my inner child panics over facing the abuse, she panics over losing the things that helped her stay alive. To her, giving them up is like giving up life. That’s yet another lie that needs to be confronted. It’s definitely a process! Thanks for your comment.
    Christina

  10. Dave,
    That sounds like a terribly frustrating way to start the day.

    I’ve found that the only way that I’ve found the end of my pain is to validate it (since I used to want to send it right back down–accusing it of being “stupid”), express it and find the source of it. Finding the source and confronting the lies are what brings me true healing. Then, it’s just a memory, but doesn’t have pain attached to it. Darlene Ouimet of Emergingfrombroken.com (the first commenter on this post) and I did a ten minute audio blog on how we confront the lies and heal the wounds from the past: http://overcomingsexualabuse.com/2010/08/17/getting-to-the-truth/

    Christina

  11. “Triggers”

    Swirling fog within my mind
    No sense of clarity can I find

    Specters loom than vanish so fast
    Fingers rake o’er my soul–an icy blast

    What has happened to disturb me so
    I hate the uncertainty, I need to know

    A sound, a smell–something I saw
    Has stirred up my psyche–made old wounds raw

    I hate the not knowing, the feeling of fear
    Feeling so weak–as if more pain is near

    If I could only just THINK, figure it out
    I have to know what these feelings are about

    Not knowing is not better, I’ve found this to be so
    I need to remember–denial is my greatest foe

    I am so tired of dealing with all this pain
    Sometimes I feel like I’m going insane

    I must be calm–I must let it come
    I must face it, I cannot let myself go numb

    I know it’s there in the swirling fog and dark
    This trauma that has, upon me, left its mark

    My mind will clear–I’ll remember, I know
    The scars are so deep–they eventually show

    I’ll deal with the memory–the anger and pain
    As many times before, I’ll deal with the shame

    I will remember, I will move on
    I will process it, but it won’t be gone

    Another piece recovered from the puzzle of my abuse
    One more step to healing from the hurt and misuse

    This hope is all I have when the fear comes rolling in,
    That someday the sun will shine, where only darkness had been.

  12. Penny,
    Thank you for sharing this here. I can really relate to being desperate to know the truth, yet feel compelled to get far away from it too. I love your poetry!
    Christina

  13. Christina,

    When I am overwhelmed, my psychologist first and always suggests getting grounded, i.e., getting myself through the dissociation to the here and now. Many times I am unsuccessful. I sit in a chair, put my feet on the floor, feel the texture of the seat, notice five things in the room, etc.

    Ronnie

  14. The word ‘trigger’ is a trigger of abuse for me.
    Somebody shot me six times in the back, and somebody else held a gun to my head and told me ‘LOOK down the barrel of this gun, and tell me what you see.’
    well I did it (b/c I HAD to) and I told him ‘I don’t see ANYthing.’
    ‘WRONG ANSWER!’ he shouted at me.
    So I tried an alternative: ‘Bullets?’ I guessed.
    Then he put on this STUPID smirk and said ‘You’re getting smarter than I think. Now tell me where you think you’re going to go after I blow your head off.’
    At which point I lost all cohesion of my sanity and turned into a babbling idiot saying ‘Please don’t shoot me, please don’t kill me. I’ll do anything you want anything you say, just PLEASE don’t kill me.’
    ‘Shut your lips,’ he said. ‘You can’t stop it from happening. Now get back there with the rest of them while I talk to this cop (they had called in to talk to him, b/c he was holding us hostage in our bank), and don’t talk,’ he warned. Or I’ll slit your throat and throw you out in the middle of the street.’
    This probably won’t be posted but that’s what the word calls up every single time I hear it. A vision of his finger on the trigger asking me to tell him where I think I’ll go after he shoots me, all the while smiling his damn dorky smirk the whole time he was doing it.

  15. I found this really helpful, especially the inner child stuff

  16. Sitting here grateful I read this but angry. I’m starting to get chills and shake. I’ve got music playing trying to drown out my inner voices but I feel a scream erupting. I’m stuck again and I hate it. Hate it. I get triggered all the time but my last one sent me far back to a place I’d thought I’d overcome. Now I’ve got to do it all over again. I suppose sometimes I don’t want to listen to the hurt part. Only because I feel so out of control. Plus it’s vey hard to stand up to people and hold my ground. Except when I’m angry then my stance is over kill. Sometimes I feel like people don’t realize their interventions aren’t truly that. People can’t grasp that their experience as a survivor is different from mine. Not because I want it to be. It just is. I’m venting. Haven’t said much in days and it’s killing me. DONT SILENCE ME. DON’T SHUT ME DOWN. That’s what I want to scream. It’s taken years to find my voice and start dealing with memories. Years. Sigh.

    I’ve gone off track. Thanks for the reminders Christina. It does help to read from thrivers like you and Darlene. Knowledge is power and even though the knowledge of my past hurts I can learn how to work through it. When I come out of this funk I hope to be stronger.

    Genesis

  17. Christina,
    All I can say is WOW! If I read this without knowing who wrote it I would swear you were telling my story. I too have always enjoyed horror movies (as long as it’s not blood and gore). I am working with a wonderful therapist now and she has been helping me along my journey. So often I have to comfort the little boy that was me, to hold him and rock him. More and more memories have been coming to me and I am triggered to either run away or sleep and I’ve also noticed that I crave sweets even though I’m not hungry. The sexual abuse I survived lasted for at least 12 years as my memory allows and endured physical, verbal and emotional abuse from another adult in my life. I am just beginning down this path of healing trying to confront those memories that trigger me. I usually want to disappear or even better die! But my desire to live and to face this enemy, my memories, is stronger now and when I get those feelings I am able to recognize them for what they are, only memories. I can’t be hurt by them anymore unless I allow myself to be. The child in me is often so scared and he did survive by “disappearing” and becoming as small and insignificant as possible so no one would notice him or abuse him.

    I loved the things you do to comfort yourself before moving forward. I plan to start some of those myself now after reading this, especially the part about writing down the memories as they come to me. I think that would be very healthy for me.

    Thank you so much for this blog and for the work you are doing! If it effected me this strongly I’m sure you have a huge impact on so many others.

    With Gratitude and Love,
    Stanley

  18. Fi, I’m glad you found this helpful!

    Genesis,
    I hate those really dark places in the healing journey. I hate feeling stuck and unable to progress any faster or seemingly at all. I’m just glad that there is a way out even when it doesn’t seem like it and it seems like it’s always going to be hard and rough. I’m glad for the better days that do come. I’m sorry that you’re hurting!
    Hugs,
    Christina

  19. Stanley,
    Welcome to OSA! I’m glad you have such a helpful therapist. You seem to be very in touch with what’s going on inside of you, which is so helpful in the healing process (and painful too!). I’m glad you’re with us on this journey. Thank you for sharing!
    Christina

  20. I’m still trying to deal with the triggers…actually I’m still trying to identify the triggers. I’ve had a few. A touch. A smell. A few memories. Like fighting with my mother because she couldn’t understand why I would no longer wear a shirt that I forced her to make me. I found it in a garbage bag with old clothes in my parents’ basement last year. I think I know why now.

    It’s been years…it’s been a very difficult battle for me. Yesterday, I was reading a passage from a book about a boy who was so shattered by his experiences, I could hardly breathe. I almost felt as though it was me.

    The problem is…I still don’t remember much of it. I want to though. I just don’t know where to begin. If anyone reads what I have to say…maybe they might have some advice for me. It’s beginning to consume me.

  21. John,
    I know how frustrating it is not to be able to remember clearly. When I started to get my memories back, they were like puzzle pieces. There was a book that really helped me that I have listed under recommended books. It’s called “Repressed Memories” by Renee Fredrickson. I have more info on it on the other page.
    Christina

  22. This is so insightful… thank you for nailing it on the head so precisely and blessing us with your thoughts! I think what you wrote can be helpful for those who are overcoming other kinds of abuse, too.

  23. thankyou for presenting such a clarified coping method .. inspiring … well done you …

  24. Thanks, Raquel!

    PS, absolutely! I’ve been physically, verbally, emotionally, financially, spiritually on top of being sexually abuse and I’ve found that just as the effects are very similar, the way to heal is too.

  25. Thank you so much for sharing. It has been over 40 years since it happened. I deal well with this most days, but other days… I am not sure if what happened is the worse part or that my parents allowed me to be in the situation in the first place…

  26. Donna,
    I can relate to those feelings. I had a lot of anger to deal with toward my mother for failing to protect me and that was just as important to look at as the abuse from my father.
    Christina

  27. I have never posted on anything, but this morning I woke up triggered and I was trying and trying to push the feelings/thoughts away. I have looked online before regarding childhood abuse, but have never read an article that struck my soul this deep. You have brought tears to eyes and I thank you for putting on paper my exact feelings between my adultself and inner child. God Bless you.

  28. Ashley,
    Welcome to OSA–I’m so glad you found what you needed. Your comment brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for letting me know!
    Christina

  29. To Everybody:

    How do you work through these issues with your significant others?

    Thank you for the reply Christina!

  30. since my parents died in last yr or so iv been questioning myself lots and triggers everywhere but mainly a song which i heard this am i got on al fours and just breathed and breathed and wondered how do people manage ?? i was ok i work from home am a busi person but triggers as u call them are much more now than eva bfore ,,,, im actually goin on an inner child course soon hopefully i wil b able to embrace that child inside :)

  31. This is a beautiful post and very well written. I can relate to that thrill of watching horror movies- which I still love. The terror from the films has always resonated with me to, though I don’t think I ever realized that that was the reason why I was so drawn to the films until I read this post. I think horror movies almost aided in allowing me to put my own painful experiences in the back of my mind because I felt that what I watched was so much worse and scarier than what was happening to me. It allowed me to think that things weren’t really so bad for me – look at what the girl in the horror film has to deal with!

    I guess I haven’t really started this “healing process” that everyone keeps referring to. I try as hard as I can not to think or remember the bad memories and I haven’t spoken about them to anyone. My mom sent me to a therapist a few times to talk about physical violence she know I was exposed to, but I didn’t like going and I couldn’t even bring myself to mention anything else to the therapist. There are some things I haven’t even admitted to myself. Before I found this blog I really didn’t think about the things I went through. I guess when it comes to this “healing” stuff, I don’t know where to start- or if I even really want to start.

    I experience triggers sometimes from unexpected harmless touches sometimes and it will make me so scared and sick to my stomach. It’s so embarrassing sobbing and then apologizing to a doctor for my “nervous reaction” to his feeling my throat. For a moment, I was totally convinced that he was really trying to hurt me… The triggers don’t happen that often but when they do the fear and anxiety is unbearable and I would love for that to go away, but I’m afraid that things will get worse before they get better and I have to admit that I still feel much more comfortable keeping this secret that I’ve kept since I was a kid than speaking about it. I keep reading things here that say “it’s okay” to open up, but part of me, not just the child part, but the 19-year-old adult part says it’s just a bad idea- that thinking of bad memories will make me bitter with sadness and regret and stick me in the past. If I talk about being a victim it will make me feel like a victim. Because, besides the triggers I sometimes run into, I don’t feel like a victim and I take pride in that. I am doing well in an ivy league school, and I am outgoing, and, with the exception of my own experiences with abuse, I am outspoken about things that trouble me and matter to me. I don’t want to regress and “become” a victim if I can sort of make myself believe that I’m not. Am I wrong? I guess part of me wants someone to tell me that I am wrong so that I can justify releasing these emotions and memories that have been locked away for so long. But I also wish I could skip all that and just be “healed.” Is that possible?

    Even this is uncomfortable. I can’t believe that I’m actually going to be posting this on the internet. I’ve been reading this blog for months but have not been able to bring myself to write a comment. Writing something down feels sort of empowering and extremely frightening at the same time and I can only imagine how terrible I would feel saying what I’m thinking (and not even writing) out loud. If my heart is racing so quickly just typing this, then I imagine that it’ll stop beating entirely for admitting what happened to me out loud. Part of me, what you might call the “child’s voice” is kicking myself for responding to this blog, telling me that I’ll be found out, telling me that I’m a liar, telling me that I’m really going to regret this, and part of me is saying that I need to do something. I need to start somewhere.

    In a way this blog is kind of like watching horror movies. I read the posts and part of me kind of reduces or justifies what I went through – I’ll tell myself that my life is really great and I’m so lucky because some people have had it way worse than me. At the same time this website is forcing me to acknowledge my own buried feelings. I haven’t really decided if that’s good or bad yet, or how I’m going to deal with it.

  32. Ashley,
    Have you heard of the book, “Allies in Healing”? It’s a great resource for loved ones of abuse survivors to help them understand and to know how they can support us.
    Christina

  33. Karen,
    I hope you can embrace your inner child, too. She deserves the love and nurturing only you can give her.
    Christina

  34. Becky,
    I can understand not wanting to jump into the healing process. It’s hard work and often interrupts life as usual. The reason I chose healing wasn’t because I couldn’t cope well with life or that the pain or effects were overwhelming. I chose healing because I want to be as healthy as I can possibly be. I suffered enough during my childhood and into my adulthood and I knew I deserved better. I can only tell you that my life and relationships are completely different now. I didn’t know all the places that were broken and dead until life flooded in. It’s SO worth it to me to heal.

    The timing for the process (even if it’s never) is such a personal one, so only you know if that’s what you want right now. What brought you here in the first place? There must have been something that you were looking for? One of the ways to know what you have to gain from the healing process is to look through the list of many of the effects of abuse: http://overcomingsexualabuse.com/2010/02/13/possible-indicators-of-sexual-abuse/
    Christina

  35. I finally told someone of my past sexual abuse (spanning from age 4 to 18), and I feel like I want to talk about it, yet I also am terrified to talk about it out loud. It’s like I can pretend it didn’t happen if I don’t talk about it. How do I wrap my mind around this and actually seek the help I need. I haven’t been able to leave my house for a week. I haven’t eaten in days. I can’t sleep without waking up screaming and drenched in sweat. I know I need help for this issue, but I keep running away from the door! Help me!

  36. If you live in Texas then I will come over and help you outside, u just have to force yourself past the comfort zone and go get help, ask a trusted find or find ur strength in the lord.

  37. Thank you for your offer, Ashley, but I actually live in Michigan. I had a bit of a better day today-I actually went out and got the mail, which was stuffed full! I also ate half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drank a glass of chocolate silk. I appreciate your outreach more than I can express…you are so sweet. An abundance of blessings on you, sweet one. XOXO, Ashley

  38. Ashley,
    I didn’t want to leave my house when I was just facing that stuff either. I needed my safe place to deal with such horrifying things and going outside didn’t feel safe at all. Some days, I didn’t leave my bed and I just moaned and rocked myself a lot since I had a hard time crying.

    I slowly got better as I let the healing process do its thing. As I learned to comfort myself and work through those memories and feelings, those dark times didn’t last as long.
    Gentle hugs,
    Christina

  39. I have been working on sexual abuse for years. Just when I think it is all out of me…something seems to bring me back to that little girl who was abused. Recently I just found out that my uncle who was extremely close to our family growing up, is a pediatrician and volunteered in the Boy Scouts of Acamdemy is in a sex scandal for a cover up of him sexually abusing children. I don’t know why this sent me back into an emotional mess but I somehow feel that he could be an indirect reason why I was sexually abused and I can’t help but feel for all of his victims!. Is this what a trigger is? and how do I handle this? I am back to thinking about the abuse and now him all the time and have anxiety in me and cry alot again. I can still get through my day and keep telling myself this didn’t happen to you , but the anxiety still seems to be present. I just want to be normal!

  40. Joan,
    Yes, hearing about your uncle’s victims would be considered a trigger. Actually, that’s a very common one. I used to be unable to feel anything about my own abuse, but I’d have a strong reaction to hearing news stories about other survivors of abuse. I wasn’t able to tap into my own pain, but I could acknowledge theirs. When I understood that the feelings that I was having for them were the buried feelings I had for myself, I could begin to tend to my own needs.
    Christina

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