Emotional triggers are what develop when you go through a traumatic event in your past, then the memory of that trauma stays with you and comes up at different times causing you to feel upset, hurt, or angry, which can affect your relationships and your life. Experiencing an emotional trigger is like PTSD and it needs to be healed if you want a higher quality of life.
(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)
I’m going to go over some PTSD stuff today. Not mine, but PTSD in general which I like to refer to sometimes as “emotional triggers” because anytime you are triggered emotionally (when some sort of stimuli out there causes an emotional response in you), it’s usually, often related to a past trauma of some sort.
And let me just get this out of the way: Your trauma is different than someone else’s trauma. Someone else may have experienced a terrible event in their past and yours may not be that terrible in the grand scheme of things. But that doesn’t make it any less traumatic.
What happened to you is personal to you, and you compare it to what else has happened to you in your life, but you probably shouldn’t compare it to what other people have experienced unless you’re just going around as an ungrateful person all the time. If you are very pessimistic about life and you think that you are getting a bad deal all the time, and you’re just not grateful for anything, it can be very helpful to see other people’s trauma, and other people’s suffering, their misery, as something so awful that maybe you shouldn’t complain.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t, I’m just saying if you’re one of these people that doesn’t have too much gratitude in your life, can’t really see the big picture that you might be better off than other people, then it is helpful. And I’m also not saying that you may not be a victim to a lot of things. And there’s a possibility that you may still be suffering. There may be things going on in your life that are very real and traumatic, and you are still suffering.
All I’m really saying is that when you can’t see past your own trauma and your own suffering, and see that there are other people that may have also suffered, and you can’t ever be grateful for what you do have, then it is helpful to see other people’s suffering so that you can look at yourself and be grateful for what you have.
A good example: We have a good friend, young kid, he has Down syndrome, and he has undergone an operation to fuse some of his vertebrae because he has fallen and he broke his back technically. This would be his, I don’t know how many surgeries he’s had but his bone structure isn’t the greatest, he’s had accidents before. And this poor kid, (he’s not a kid anymore, he’s an adult, but he’s a kid at heart), this poor guy has gone through so many surgeries. He used to be flexible. He used to be mobile. He used to be able to do anything that any young boy can do.
However, over the years, he’s had all these operations that have stiffened his back. They got metal in his back now, and he’s lost a lot of mobility, and I have never, ever heard him complain once. In fact, he brightens the room with his smile, and he says things so endearing like, “Hey look, I can move my arm!”
When I hear something like that, it makes me stop and think about how I view the world and how I think that I have problems that are so bad that I have to stress about them. But here’s this kid that keeps getting his mobility decreased and in his latest operation we thought he might end up paralyzed or worse. They actually thought he might die. So when I think about any stress or problems in my life, I think about this kid who is just happy he can move his arm.
That to me just touches my heart and that’s why I’m telling you this because if everything does look dismal, if you are feeling any sort of stress or anxiety, that there are other people out there that you know certainly have gone through a lot. Again, not to minimize what you’ve gone through. I’m going to repeat that, is that your trauma is no worse or better than somebody else’s trauma because your trauma happened to you. And all you have is what you are have gone through in your life and that’s all you can compare it to.
But when you’re so stuck in the obsessive thought process of how tough life is, it can be helpful to remember that there are other people that have gone through a lot worse and are still going through a lot worse, and it’s going to get even worse.
We don’t know if this wonderful person that had this operation today is going to have the longest life. But right now, when he sees someone who he’s never met at the grocery store and says “You’re beautiful”, instead of thinking about all the restrictions that have been placed on him and all the operations he’s gone through, and all the challenges that he has in his life, he just comes out and says something like that reminding us all what is sometimes better to focus on.
Yes, we have to think about our problems and figure them out and try to find solutions, absolutely. And we may not view our traumatic memories as he does, but why can’t we just live for today?
He’s very present moment minded. He sees something, he says something about it. It’s almost as if everything is brand new to him. And it would be easy to say, “That’s because he’s got down syndrome, cognitive disability, he probably can’t think of yesterday or tomorrow.”
But I tell you what, this guy has a good memory! You can tell him how to do something and he’ll say, “No, I know exactly how to do it.” And he’ll show you. He’s got something that a lot of us don’t have. I know he’s very in touch with the present moment and everything seems like it’s an experience for him and he just gets amazed and wowed by a lot of things and I just think we can take something from that. I love that.
I say that just as a reminder that when you can’t get out of your own obsessive thoughts, that maybe it can help to think about someone that figured out how to be very present even though he’s gone through a lot.
Let me come back to my original point which was your trauma is yours, it was real and your trauma may be something as simple as someone catching you drawing on the wall of your mom and dad’s house or someone yelling at you, or someone hurting you, someone physically hurting you, someone assaulting you, either as a child or as you grow older. But what this old trauma, or all these old events do, is they create sort of like a marker in time. And that marker has a lot connected to it. That marker has the emotional state that you were in at the time. It has probably what you saw, or what you heard or both. It probably has what you were thinking at the time. It’s almost like it froze everything in place in that moment.
Then that frozen memory became the marker so that when that dangerous situation seemed to appear again, you would have a recollection of it so that you would avoid it. That’s the fight or flight mechanism so that you don’t get into danger again.
If you stepped on a bee’s nest when you are younger, and that memory froze inside your mind, then you probably even unconsciously walk through a field a lot differently than you used to. Like when I used to walk outside barefoot when you’re a kid, and nothing ever bites you, then you don’t have anything to be afraid of. You’ll probably walk barefoot all your life. That is until something bites you. Then you’ll think “I better not walk barefoot anymore”.
When you’re older, you could probably handle a bite a lot better but when you’re young, and something bites you, this can happen at any age, of course, but you get bit you’re running and you think, “I never want to go in that field again.” And from that day on, you wear shoes outside. Or sometimes you’re just very present and you just wear no shoes again and hope you don’t get bit again or don’t even think about getting bit again.
Or maybe you’re a person who thinks, “I had no shoes on, of course, I could get bit or I may not.” There are a number of ways to look at it but it’s a good example. Something simple as a bug bite could have hurt you as a child but as you grew older, that memory stayed with you and that marker in your brain at that time could re-traumatize you later.
It’s almost like deja vu. Let’s just say that you’re about to walk through a field today and you decide to take your shoes off and it brings you back 30 years when you were a child or however long it was for you and you think “Oh my god last time I did this, I got bit. I better not do it.”
That’s pretty much a post-traumatic response: “I had trauma in the past and after that trauma, I’m having this emotional response again.”
That emotional trigger is popping up. “Oh, what do I do now? Now I have to deal with this emotional trigger.” That’s something I want to discuss today is how do we deal with this post-trauma or these emotional triggers, so that we can get through them and we don’t keep experiencing them.
It’s not easy to get out of a PTSD response. There are some severe cases. Of course, we’ve all heard of people in the military coming back having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that’s where we hear the term a lot because there are a lot of awful things that go on when there’s war. So these soldiers come back, and they have these flashbacks, and they don’t know how to deal with them. Or they do know how to deal with them, but it’s still painful or it’s still scary to them. I definitely feel for those people because they’ve been through a lot.
We can use that as an example too. If we’re so stuck in our own obsessive thoughts about our own problems, then we can think yeah, but I didn’t go through that. It can be helpful. That’s not the solution but it can be helpful to realize that there are other people that have suffered worse. But again, let me reiterate, your trauma is what happened to you and can feel just as bad as someone else’s trauma even though it may not have been “as bad as theirs.”
The reason I’m telling you this is that your trauma is yours. When somebody comes along and tells you, “That’s not so bad. You didn’t go through something that bad. What’s your problem?” When they ask that question or say something like that, I want you to be okay to validate your own trauma, your own history, and tell yourself they don’t know my trauma and they don’t know what I went through. And they don’t know how much I suffered or how much I’m still suffering today. They don’t know and they probably won’t ever know. And I may not ever be able to convince them so I’m not going to try.
This is where you kind of start discerning who is safe to share your traumatic memories or your painful memories with because you don’t want to tell the wrong people about what happened to you if they’re going to dismiss it or invalidate it. Of course, sometimes you find out they’re the wrong person after the fact but hopefully, you have friends, family, loved ones that you can share something that happened to you in your past so that it doesn’t have to be yours and yours alone. That can be very helpful.
This is one of the things I do on the air sometimes. I will tell you things that might be going through my head, that I might be carrying around with me so that I can express it and hopefully release it from my system. It doesn’t mean it gets released. Sometimes it can, but just being able to get it out of my system… I look at it as releasing the pressure that has built up from holding on to it.
A good example is a minor trauma that happened to me. In fact, it’s so minor that you might look at me and ask the same thing, “Why were you traumatized by that?” Like in the example I gave before. You might think it’s so minor. But for me it was a real trauma and I had to deal with it for about, I don’t know, maybe two years? I remember it was a long time that I was emotionally triggered by this. And thinking about it now, yes, it was minor, but thinking about when I went through it, it was not
This happened when I was about 20. My friend and I visited our friends in college, and we stayed in their dorm overnight. In the morning, I think we had to go back to work or something like that so we left early. We got up around 7 or earlier, walked down the hall, and opened the exit door to leave.
Every single alarm on the campus went off!
It freaked the heck out of us, and we ran. No one was up, but now the entire campus was going to wake up because of the alarm we set off. We ran across the field, ran to his car and drove off. Our hearts were beating, and we were breathing heavily, and we didn’t know what to think or what to say or what to do. It’s almost like we robbed a bank. That’s what it felt like. It felt like we’re running out of a bank with a bag full of cash, running to the getaway car, and taking off.
Of course, no one was chasing us because it was just a door alarm. But back then we didn’t expect it. I don’t know how it affected him but for me, I was so affected by that single incident that it took me years to get past the fear of opening doors.
It was just a simple thing. It was so minor. But every time I walked up to a door, mostly with stores because stores had the bigger, more reinforced doors that we went through, I would have to think two or three times before opening the door.
That marker was set. And every time there was a similar incident in my life after that, up until it started going away, I would be afraid to walk through doors. I would stop before I open the door and think “What if has an alarm on it? What am I going to do?”
Again, there was really no reason for us to run. We had just left that dorm too early. And we went out the wrong door, because they alarm the doors until like 7 or 8 am and we were just leaving before that time, so it wasn’t really a big deal. But back then, it felt like we were running from the bank robbery like I said, and I didn’t know how to process it.
And I didn’t process it until a couple of years later. I’m going to share with you how I processed it in a moment but I wanted to tell that story because it can be something as minor as that. There was no danger. There was no one chasing us with guns. There wasn’t even a soul around because everyone was asleep. It was just a big fear thing like “Oh my God if everyone wakes up, what are they going to think of us?”
I don’t know what I was thinking back then but I ran faster than I’d ever run in my life. And from that point on, I had to deal with that door phobia but I was able to get over it. And I don’t even think about it nowadays. Every now and then I will but it’s not a fear. But it does cause hesitation.
Sometimes PTSD doesn’t disappear. Often it doesn’t disappear unless you do some real deep work on it. When my PTSD regarding doors finally dissipated because of how I handled it, I was able to open any door without even thinking about it.
And nowadays, every now and then, it’ll pop up in my mind and I’ll think, “Whatever! That’s not going to happen so don’t worry about it. And even if it does, it’s no big deal.”
That’s what I would hope that anyone with any emotional trigger gets to is that, yes, it can still pop in your mind, but it’s only a thought. It’s not a fight or flight thing. It’s just an “Oh, I used to be afraid of doors, and now I’m not.” That thought can pop into my mind for sure, but it doesn’t hold me back. It doesn’t make me pause, at least not for any more than a couple of nanoseconds, and then I just walk through the door and it’s over. I don’t even think about it after that.
But I used to stop and either let somebody else walk through the door first, or not walk through it until I was actually able to process the moment because the PTSD took me right back to that moment and I’d think, “Oh yeah, doors have alarms. I have to be careful going through this door.” But then I’d remind myself, “Oh wait, that was that door on that day at that time, not this door. An alarm is not going to go off on this 24-hour convenience store door!” That would be probably bad for business if people opened the door and the alarm went off so I wasn’t thinking logically.
This is what PTSD can do. It can put us in that state that we were in at that time, and even our thoughts go back to that time. That’s why when some soldiers come back from war, and you see this on the movies a lot, they think they’re actually back in the war, and they’re hiding beside their bed ready to attack or ready to defend or whatever. They feel like they’re really there. Their brain goes into that initial state of trauma and reenacts what’s happening. It doesn’t matter how major or minor the event was, PTSD can still exist and feel very real to the person experiencing it.
In the next segment, I’ll share with you what I did to get past my old trauma and PTSD, and what I still do to this day whenever something traumatizes me. For example, I remember when we bought the house we’re in now, I had to climb the ladder and clean the gutters out one day. I got to the top of the ladder, looked down from the second floor, and I couldn’t move. And I didn’t like it. And I didn’t want to do it again. I was afraid!
I was thinking, “I’m a 48-year-old guy looking down from two stories, and I’m afraid. I can’t move! I don’t want to go up the ladder, I don’t want to go down. I just want to stay here frozen solid because that will protect me.”
I was thinking something like that at the time. But I got over that fear too. The solution I have to get over the fear is very simple, and I’ll share it with you shortly.
In a moment I’m going to read you a couple of things from a couple of emails that have to do with old traumas, PTSD, emotional triggers, and what the people who wrote to me might want to do to start to heal from them so that they can move on with their life. Because emotional triggers can hold you back and cause you to hesitate and not move forward. And if you can’t move forward, then guess where you are? You’re stuck in the trauma. Or at least the effects of the trauma, and that’s a place you don’t want to be. You don’t want to stay stuck there.
The first email I’m going to read from is a little long so I’m going to jump straight to the part where she asks a question. First, she said, “My past keeps rearing its ugly head.”
She told me the story about how she was in an emotionally abusive relationship and because of that, she was a shell of her former self when she got out of it. And she suffered from depression. And it’s been two years and she feels like she’s grown and healed a lot and now she’s in this new relationship and it’s fantastic, but she says “My past keeps rearing its ugly head. I find myself questioning myself all the time, asking myself ‘is he going to hurt me too? Is my new boyfriend going to treat me the same as my ex did? Can I trust him?'”
She says, “Deep down, I know I can but more importantly, how do I trust myself? There’s so much information out there telling you how to identify a toxic relationship, but nothing on how to let your past go. How do you trust yourself again and not allow your past to ruin your future? I want to move on and every time I think I have something triggers me and I feel like I’m back to square one.”
“I need to move away from the past and live in the now. Not for my current relationship, but more importantly, for me, I want to be able to trust again. I want to be able to trust that not everyone is like my ex. I know that he was the one that was unhappy and he was projecting all of his negativity onto me. I want to trust that this will never happen to me again because I won’t allow it. I want to trust that I do know the warning signs and I won’t ignore them or justify them again. I want to live fully in the now. I want to live in the current and not my past. I want to be able to put all that negativity behind me where it belongs and accept that I do deserve to be happy and also to accept that what happened to me wasn’t my fault and that not everyone is like my ex. People like him are in the minority and not normal. I want to get past all this.”
That’s all I’m going to read from that email. She shared some more but that’s enough. All of that is a lot to deal with in her life and so I want to address some of this because this is definitely PTSD or being emotionally triggered by things that are going on in her current relationship. And it’s been a while since you wrote this, so maybe her relationship has improved, and maybe she has improved. I’ll find out a bit when I write her back.
But this happens to a lot of us. We get into another relationship. We get into another situation, maybe another job, another city that we live in anything new, that has a similarity to the past in any way. For her, she had a past relationship that was abusive and now she has a current relationship that isn’t, but her past keeps rearing its ugly head like she said. And she wants to know how to get past these thoughts and these feelings and these old triggers? And she wants to know how to get into a space of trust.
Here’s where I go with this. When it comes to getting over an emotional trigger, or getting over an old past trauma, where you want to be able to live life without having to jump right back into that “marker” that we talked about earlier, and not hesitate and not trust that things are going to go better this time, I think there’s a two-pronged approach to this.
The first prong is expressing the trauma. I’ll talk about that in a second. And the second prong is repeating the event that caused the trauma. Yikes! Not repeating the actual event. I don’t want her to go back to the abusive relationship.
The first one is expressing the trauma. Who do you express it to?
A: You acknowledge it to yourself.
B: You acknowledge it to the person that’s involved today.
If she’s in a trusting, loving relationship, I’m going to assume that the person she’s talking about would probably be supportive.
When you’re in an abusive relationship, you’re going to have multiple traumas. There are going to be times when you’re in your car and you have a PTSD moment because you remember fighting or getting abused in the car. Then you’ll be shopping somewhere and you’ll have an emotional trigger there. Then you’ll be at the park and you’ll have an emotional trigger there. It’s going to happen.
We have to acknowledge that there are going to be multiple times, in most cases, that these traumas will reappear and you will relive them. It’s not fun, I get it, but at the same time, we have to remember that our brain did exactly what it needed to do to help us remember the danger. The brain inserts the marker and says, “This is dangerous. Remember what you saw. Remember what you heard. Remember what you felt. Remember what you were thinking. And take this into the future so we can avoid this next time.”
But then we generalize it right? We get into another situation that’s not the same, but has similarities. And suddenly we’re re-traumatized.
“But it’s not the same event! Why am I re-traumatized? I want to be able to get through this.”
Just tell yourself, “It’s okay. I’ll get through this. It’s okay, this isn’t the same situation, it’s going to take some time to heal.”
The first prong of expressing means when you get emotionally triggered, when that happens, express it to someone. If you don’t have anyone to express it to, I highly recommend you find someone because it’s going to be helpful if you have someone that’s loving and supporting that will listen to you and not be judgmental, and help you get through it.
If you don’t have someone like that, maybe you’ll need to pay a therapist. Or maybe you can talk to a family member or a best friend. But you’ll want to find someone to express it to so that you can get it out of your system.
I look at old trauma as pressure in your system. And that pressure is also part of the marker. The marker was made, let’s just say 10 or 20 years ago, and that pressure, which is part of the marker, stayed in your system for all that time. The reason I call it pressure is because when you have an emotional trigger, there’s a lot of energy behind it.
You get triggered and it’s an “Oh, crap!” moment. You might have that thought or feeling like where did that come from? It just came out of nowhere. But all this time you probably had it inside you.
I believe that pressure is stored inside you and every time you repress it, or push it back down without expressing it, it reinforces the pressure. I wouldn’t say necessarily it amplifies it, but it certainly reinforces it or keeps it as strong as it was, or maybe slightly less. The initial trauma is probably going to have the most pressure and then from that point on, you might have 75% of the pressure, but it never gets lower because it’s always there. That marker is continuing into the future with you.
So the first prong approach: Express it.
What does that mean? It means, in this person’s case, she tells her new boyfriend, “I’ve had a lot of abuse in my past and there are going to be times that you do things that are going to make me feel unsafe. I’m going to be right back in that moment when I was being abused, and I need to know that you’re going to be there to help me through it.” She doesn’t have to say it this exact way but this is one approach.
“I want to know that you’ll be there to help me through it because I need someone to help me heal from this. I’m not saying that you have to be the one to help me heal but I just need to express this to you, not only so you’ll know where I am when it’s happening, but also so you know that the reason I’m reacting this way is not you.”
She can also say what I’ve already said in this episode: “There are similarities in the events that I experienced that were traumatic. For example, when we were in the car that day, and we were arguing, it brought me right back to that time when my ex did this to me. So I want to let you know that I may overreact like that, and I need you to be there to be understanding, and trust me to go through this process because when I have this reaction, I just need to be able to share it with you and tell you I’m being triggered right now.”
When you do that, hopefully that understanding person will say, “Oh, yes, of course. I will be there. I will listen. And I will help you process it and help you get through it.”
They may not have the ability to help you heal or process it or whatever, but just to be able to get it out of your system helps release the pressure. It lowers the pressure. The pressure is going to be there for a while because it is a well-worn road that was driven on many, many times.
Multiple traumas in your past can be the same as one trauma. You can be beaten over and over again and you might become afraid of being beaten again, even though it may never happen. For some, it can be same as being beaten once. It can have the same PTSD effect. The trauma can happen multiple times or it can happen once, but either way it’s still a well-worn road. It’s like a rut that your neurons travel through and remind you that it is unsafe to go this way.
The first prong approach is to express so that you give the pressure a chance to release. And the most important part about expressing is to do it as close to the moment of the emotional trigger as possible. For example, let’s just say that I felt jealous suddenly about something my girlfriend is doing. It might be embarrassing to tell her that, but it would be hugely beneficial for me to acknowledge in myself, “Whoa, something’s going on. I’m feeling jealous.”
I wouldn’t necessarily say that out loud at first because I would want to take some time to process it. But I might ask myself questions like, “Why am I feeling jealous? What’s going on here?” And I’ll kind of explore that. I’ll drill into it and I’ll ask myself, “Okay, what is causing this jealousy? Why am I jealous about that? What did that person do that made me jealous?”
I’m going to explore that and try to process it myself. Then when I can’t get past the jealousy, if I don’t get anywhere with it, at least I’ve explored it so I got past step one. Step two is going to be the expression part where I tell my girlfriend because I have a loving relationship with a supportive person that’s going to listen and help me walk through it. I hope everyone has someone like this in their life. But like I said earlier, if you can’t find someone like that, you might have to pay someone to listen to you and help you process things. But hopefully you have someone in your life that you can trust and walk through this with you.
Fortunately, I have someone and on top of that, she’s also a part of the trigger. She is in the formula for my jealousy. In this made-up scenario, some guy really likes her and keeps calling and texting her causing me to have feelings about it (This hasn’t happened as far as I know but let’s just say it happened). She’s always talking to him and I’m thinking, “Okay, this is getting out of hand. You’re always talking to him. You’re taking time away from us. What’s going on here? I’m feeling like this is a big thing.”
So I might approach her and talk to her about that. I might say, “I’m having these feelings. I’m getting a little angry. I feel like maybe I’m jealous. I want to share this with you because I don’t really think I have a reason to be jealous, but I want to bring this up to you.”
It might be a little different with us compared to other couples because I don’t really have too much trauma leftover from my past. I’ve worked on it a lot. But let’s just say that my girlfriend knew about my old traumas and knew that I was constantly worried or obsessed about the relationship because maybe people cheated on me before or something like that. So she knew I might worry that it could happen again. There’s some PTSD for you.
So I express to her, “I want you to know that sometimes I’m going to get this way because this happened in my past. But I want to share this with you, not because I think that you’re going to do anything, it’s because this old stuff keeps coming up for me and I don’t know how to deal with it yet.” This is kind of another approach. “I don’t know how to deal with it yet so I want to let so I can at least share it with you and get it out of my system.”
And she may not have an answer. She may say something that doesn’t satisfy me at all. She may say, “Look, he’s a good friend of mine and we’re talking about all this stuff and I’m enjoying our time talking together, so I’m not going to stop talking to him.” That might be her answer. And if it is, I would have to still deal with any PTSD or jealousy or anything like that, and figure out where I am with.
It’s possible I could get to the point where I think about how every night she talks to another guy three hours taking time away from us. That would be a problem. It wouldn’t be about jealousy anymore. It would be about taking time away from us. I would turn it into something else, which is good, because now I’m expressing my relationship boundaries and my values, and I would be letting her know that I want us to be together more and her time with him is taking time and energy away from us so I want to talk about it.
If that weren’t the case, if it wasn’t about my relationship boundaries and my values and things I’m okay talking about, then I need to express it. This is the first prong, expressing. Hopefully, you can express.
And for example, this person who was abused, she has a very legitimate reason that she would be emotionally triggered. “You know I’ve been abused in the past and they’re going to be seemingly benign things that happen that trigger me so I just want to let you know that this can happen and I’m sorry in advance. There’s nothing I can do about it… ” You don’t really have to apologize but it can help to be sort of a softener for what could happen and what this person has to deal with.
She might go on to say, “I hope you understand and hope that you can listen to me and support me going through this.” And this brings up sort of a side point, which is really a direct point: When you have someone that’s part of the equation for the emotional trigger, for example, she’s in a relationship with this person who is the stimuli for her triggers (because she was in a relationship before where her partner was the stimuli so now she has a new partner. In her brain, partner equals stimuli.) The person in the equation that is also the stimuli has to be a somewhat special person.
I mean that in the sense of being very patient, and being very understanding, and being very supportive as these triggers come up. Because in this case, he might take it all personally. We all do this. No matter how much patience you have, if somebody gets triggered over and over again, you’re going to be like, “Okay, this is enough. I’ve had enough.”
If my girlfriend said, “You keep saying how jealous you are and it’s been going on for months. I’ve had enough. I’m sorry you feel this way but I can’t do this anymore.” It can get to that. I understand that. It absolutely can get to that. And sometimes, if the person says that, if it’s been months and months, and it’s the same thing over and over again, and you’re not getting any better, they might reach that threshold where they say “No more. I’ve had enough. You can’t do this to me anymore.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it is the most helpful thing. And sometimes it doesn’t work at all. I mean, it doesn’t help you. The reason it can be helpful is that it can be a pattern interrupt. It can interrupt your old thought patterns. If I’m constantly thinking about “Oh my god, is she talking to him again? What’s going to happen to us?” And she says, “You know what? I’ve had enough! Stop it. Stop bothering me about it. If you have a problem with it, it’s your problem, not mine.”
She said that to me before actually, not about jealousy, but she makes it known that she’s had enough and she doesn’t know what else to do. And that’s fair because we don’t want to introduce our trauma so much to the other person that our trauma becomes their trauma. You can have the most understanding person try to help but they will eventually reach their limit because now all they can think about is your trauma as well, and now they’re part of the PTSD.
It can be very difficult to continue to hear the same thing over and over again and, being a part of the equation, thinking that there’s nothing you can do where you’ve tried and tried and you’ve listened and supported them, you can get to the point where you’ve had enough.
In the case I was just talking about where my girlfriend says, “You know what? I’ve had enough.” That’s going to break my pattern. That’s going to interrupt my obsession and make me think of something else for the first time maybe.
If you’re on the other side of this and somebody is constantly triggered, and you can’t get past it, you might have to get to that point because where’s the quality of life? Where’s the quality of any relationship or the quality of your time together?
If the quality goes away and the emotional trigger is all the relationship is about, then yeah, you’ve gotten sucked into a problem that maybe isn’t really yours to deal with anymore which is why it’s important that this other person might need to talk to somebody else. Or they might need to go to therapy.
In the example I gave, where my girlfriend might say, “That’s enough.” I’m going to think oh, what do you mean that’s enough? I thought you were understanding. I thought you were going to support me through this.
And she might respond by saying, “Yeah, but I can only take so much. I can only take so much blame here. I can only take so much of your glares, your anger. It’s enough. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
That’s going to shake my foundation. It’s going to make me think, “Oh, I don’t want to lose this relationship. I don’t want her to leave. I don’t want her to be mad at me.”
It might jostle things around so much that the obsession stops. Sometimes this needs to happen. I’m not saying it’s a good solution and I’m not saying that it’ll always work this way, but it’s worked this way for me in the past. I can’t remember the incident but I remember either my girlfriend or my wife saying, “I can’t take it anymore. It’s too bad. It’s your problem. If you have a problem with it, that’s tough. There’s nothing I can do.” She worked and worked with me. She listened to me. She supported me. But enough was enough.
Again, I forget the incident, but she said, “I can’t handle it anymore. You’re going to have to figure this out on your own. If you can’t, then I can’t be around. I have to leave. I can’t stand the way you treat me.” Or something like that. And that shook up my thought process so much that I stopped obsessing about whatever it was.
That is a possible solution. It’s not a pleasant one. And it doesn’t always work, but it certainly changes your priorities because we tend to prioritize obsessive thoughts and we think oh my God, this is happening again. That’s all I can think about all I don’t want it to happen. What do I do to change it?
And we just can’t get out of that. And sometimes it takes someone coming along and kicking our butt and saying, “You’re going to have to change it or this isn’t going to happen anymore. We’re not a couple…” or “You need to get out of my house… or, if it’s not a relationship, “You’re risking your job…” or “I’m not going to be there for you anymore.”
Whatever it is, it could jostle you enough to shake you from that thought process and get you out of that line of thinking. That can be helpful. If it happens, don’t see it so much as a bad thing, see it as an opportunity to reprioritize. And when you do, you may stop being obsessive altogether, or at least it may prevent the old trauma from coming back. It can happen. It may not work with severe trauma, but it can sometimes work when someone else is the one who is triggering your PTSD.
So coming back to expressing, yes, it’s vital. I think it’s important to get this pressure out of you, express it, and hopefully you have someone that will listen and support you so that when it comes up, you’re talking about it in the moment, you’re expressing it.
The second prong is something I mentioned that didn’t sound pleasant, was re-experiencing the trauma, but not exactly the same trauma. Re-experiencing it in a way of introducing the elements of the old trauma, just to help you feel different about those old elements. And hopefully start changing the patterns in your mind so that those old elements don’t trigger old events.
I’ll use the ladder example, to explain what I mean by that. I climbed a ladder to the second story of our house, and I looked down, and I couldn’t move. I was frozen. It’s funny because even 10 years before that I was climbing ladders, no problem. But I didn’t do it in a while and it was a new environment and I was outside, and just little things that were different, but it is very similar to something I must have experienced when I was younger. It was certainly a fear of heights, or at least a fear of falling. It was one of those and I was frozen at the top of the ladder.
I eventually made my way down slowly. Each step very careful, very present in that moment, trying to decline one rung at a time. And I made it to the bottom and I breathed a sigh of relief and I felt better. Then I realized I had to move the ladder and go up again. So I did. I moved the ladder, then one rung at a time, climbed up until I reached the top.
And again, I was frozen. Then I had to come back down and do it again and again. What I was doing was reintroducing the trauma over and over. This isn’t something I’m saying that you should do, because this could be harmful to you. This could put you in a post-traumatic shock or something. This could reintroduce it so badly that you can’t handle it. You could fall off the ladder. And I don’t want to be responsible for that! I don’t want you to do things that put you in any harm.
But I do want to say that the more you introduce something that you survive, the more you’ll get comfortable with it, and the less traumatic it will be.
Again, this is not my advice. It’s just a philosophy, if you want to call it that. I did it in my life, doesn’t mean you should. Get professional advice. I tell you that at the beginning of every show. But when I was done climbing the ladder that day, it got easier and easier. And at the end, I had no fear.
I had some fear, but it wasn’t the same. It was different. When I got to the top of the ladder again, I looked down and thought I’m not afraid of being this high anymore.
This was sort of the end of the third hour or something of climbing the ladder. The height didn’t bother me. I did think “Well, what if the ladder slips?” And that kind of scared me a little bit, but for some reason, the emotional trigger was gone.
I know the reason. The reason is, you know that well-worn road of trauma that sticks with us from that marker in our past? I was filling up the groove from the tires, if you want to look at it that way. The rut that was always there that the neurons traveled through over and over again to remind me of that old trauma was starting to fill up with something new, something different. Something I could look at and say to myself, “It didn’t happen this time. I didn’t fall, this time. I didn’t die this time.”
It was something I could reinforce inside of me that reminded me that I made it. And I was safe. And climbing up the ladder didn’t kill me. Cimbing up the ladder again, also didn’t kill me. Then doing it a third time and a fourth time and a twentieth time, I finally get to the point where the rut of fear was filled and I felt better because the fear disappeared.
I proved to myself that I could do it. I reintroduced the trauma by doing it over and over again, and it helped the trauma go away. Does this mean in five years I’ll climb another ladder and it won’t be there?
Maybe yes, maybe no. But I can just do the same thing and get past it. But how does this work in other situations? Like this person who experienced emotional abuse in her past relationship. That’s a different scenario, isn’t it? Because I don’t want her to ask her boyfriend to abuse her. That’s not what I want at all. But this is where it’s important to combine what she expressed with the reintroduction of the trauma in a way that’s safe. And how does she do that? Whenever the trigger comes up, I want her to note everything that triggered her.
I don’t know if it was the way he looked to her. I don’t know if it was the way he used his hands or how he stepped into the room or the inflection of his voice or what he said… Whatever it was, she has to take notes in her mind or on paper, and write down exactly what was triggering about that moment, because these are going to be the seemingly benign components of the emotional trigger that will allow her to start to take it apart and have a better response next time. Maybe a little bit of healing, a little less pressure.
You write down or take note of all the components that triggered you, so that you can reintroduce an element in a safer way and under your control. This way you’ll know it’s coming and you’ll have an opportunity to face it head-on without it surprising you.
What I mean by that is, let’s just say that you’re afraid of snakes. For example, when I was a kid, I was sitting on the front porch (I think it was a couple steps on this front porch) and I was just playing these bongo drums. And the snake appeared from nowhere by my feet. I don’t know if I threw the bongo drums or if I just jumped up and ran, but I ran.
I ran to the front door around In the house, and I told my mom, “I saw a snake!’ And she said, “I have never seen you run so fast.” I told her that the snake was there and from that point on I was afraid of snakes. However, I was quick to get over that because I was able to process that pretty quickly and realize the snake never intended to bite me. That wasn’t really a traumatic moment exactly because it didn’t last, but let’s just say it was. Let’s pretend that I was still afraid of snakes.
The next time I became emotionally triggered because of my fear of snakes, I would ask myself, “Okay, what about this triggered me?” That’s a good question. Or, “What are the components about this that triggered me?”
I might say, “A snake triggered me!” That might be the only component I think about. Or since I was on the stairs, I might say, “A snake under the stairs triggers me.” The stairs are part of the formula that triggered me so I would add that to my list.
What else is there? “Well, it’s outside. It was during the day. Okay, that is part of the trauma or trigger too.” I could just write down these seemingly benign things, but they’re all part of the formula for the trigger.
Now that I have these three or four things, I can introduce these elements in a different way, in a safer way. I might go out and buy a rubber snake. And I might put it under the stairs and as I’m walking down the stairs, I know it’s there. But this time is different. I’m reintroducing the trauma in a way that’s safe and under my control. And I’m also filling up that old rut of trauma, that PTSD. I’m rewriting the neural pathways, the old patterns, so that it changes my experience.
I do that over and over again, until I realize, “Oh, there’s really nothing to fear.” And if that’s not enough, if I’m still afraid of snakes, I might have to go handle some snakes. I might have to face my fear head-on. This has helped me actually. I’ve done that when I used to work in a pet store a long time ago. I was able to handle snakes that I knew didn’t bite me, and that was easier.
Once I got to know them and understood them, I wasn’t afraid of them anymore. I had a very similar experience with spiders. Spiders are always running away from me which means they’re probably more scared of me than I am of them. That helped me get over my fear, plus there was a big incident with a spider that happened to me a long time ago, but I learned to get over most of my fear with spiders just by being around them, understanding them, studying up on them, and figuring out that they are actually more helpful than harmful.
But coming back to this person who might have to write down the components of her emotional triggers that come up, it might be the way he looked at her, what he said, in the inflection in his voice, everything I said before, but I want her to write those down.
“Well, it was in this room, the room was blue and the couch was over there, and you were looking at me. You were giving me this glare…” (She’s going to talk to her boyfriend like this), “And when you gave me this glare and you said these words, that’s what triggered me.”
Hopefully, he’s that understanding, supportive, loving person that wants to work through this with her and he’ll say, “Okay, let’s recreate that.” And she’s going to go re-introduce the trauma but now it’s under her control. She’s going to say, “Okay, go over there, stand there and say the following…” And when it’s recreated, she can ask herself “Okay, what am I thinking right now? I’m thinking that he’s going to hurt me. But… ” (this could be something she says, ” But he hasn’t.”
Recreating this is actually replaying a scene from her old trauma, not the same person from that trauma from the past, and the scene is slightly different, but it has similar elements which can help change the pattern of her old thinking.
This is part of the two-prong approach where you express what’s going on, you talk about all the elements of it, and then you reintroduce the trauma and in her case, that could be a way to do it. But what’s going to happen is, the more you talk about it, the more you express it, the more you name the elements, the less power they have over you. Especially when you decide to reintroduce the elements under your control, just like I reintroduced the element of climbing a ladder over and over again, but it was under my control and at my pace and I could go as fast or as slow as I wanted (it was always slow) and then when I got to the top, I chose to stay there as long as I wanted. And I chose to move down as slow as I wanted.
It took doing that over and over again for me to finally get it that I wasn’t going to die. It could be a fear of death for her. Or it could be just a fear of getting hit. Or it could be just a fear of being yelled at. But what it takes is for her to have control over the circumstances and to reintroduce those circumstances in her own way so that she can start to realize that it is safe and that he is safe. And it’s important for him to understand that this may need to happen several times, not that he needs to set up the stage every single time to recreate it.
Most of this is just going to be expression. When she expresses her trauma to him, most of it is going to be her saying, “When you gave me that look, it reminded me of him and when he did that thing.” And he might say, “You mean this look? And she might reply, “Yes, don’t do that.” Then they might have a conversation about it.
It’s important to have that conversation because the more you repress it, the more that rut stays deep, and it never gets filled in. And this is why it’s important to express and release the pressure and kind of go through this.
It’s not always about setting up the stage and getting everyone in their positions and yelling, “Action!” then repeating it over and over again. But think of all the traumas or the phobias that you might have had in your life and start to reintroduce them, exposing yourself to those elements over and over again, to help you reinforce and rebuild the trust and the feeling of safety so that you aren’t so much under anyone or anything’s spell anymore.
You might need professional help. Don’t get me wrong, some of this stuff isn’t easy. Some of this stuff you can’t recreate. Imagine the person who was sexually abused. It is hard to recreate those elements but you can recreate the benign elements. We certainly don’t want a dangerous person in the room when you do this.
It kind of reminds me when I was abused when I was four. My stepfather held me down and he was rubbing my dirty underwear in my face. It was awful. It took place in this house I used to live in, in Massachusetts and one day, like 10 years ago, I decided to take a trip up there. While there, I saw the old house I used to live in.
That memory popped up right away. I thought whoa, that abuse happened right there in that house. This is a perfect opportunity for me to address this right now because that’s an old trauma that I probably need to heal from.
So I approached the house and the owners of the house were outside working on the garden or the bushes or they were trimming stuff up, and I walked up to them and I said, “I used to live here.” And the guy looked at me and he said, “You did? I said, “Yeah, when I was a little kid. I remember the kitchen being over there and the bathroom being over there.”
And he said, “Oh, my God come in!” And he invited me in. I thought, really? You’re going to let me come in your house? and he said, “Come on in. We’ll show you what we did to the place.”
I was just astounded that stranger would let me in the house, but he did. I walked in the house and it was a lot smaller than I remember because I’m a lot taller now. But there was the kitchen, there was the bathroom. And then we entered the room where that trauma took place. And it was a perfect opportunity because It was a safe environment with safe people and everything was under my control and I had an opportunity to release this once and for all and heal from it.
I decided to put my hand on the ceiling because I could reach it now and look down at where I believed it took place and I just came to peace with it. I don’t even know what happened. I think I might have connected with my inner child there, my four-year-old self, and just said, “I am here. Everything’s okay. I love you. You’re going to be fine.” I forget exactly what I did there but it was definitely a healing moment and it was a perfect opportunity to reintroduce an old trauma in a safe way under my control.
When you can do this in any way, shape, or form, if you can do this, I believe it can be very helpful. And be aware that it can be very traumatic. If you are really in a bad space with what happened, that’s when you might need to talk to someone else. Or at least have someone do this with you so that you have some sort of support system. That can be very important. But I was so grateful that they let me in the house, and I thanked them. And I still think about them today. I hope they’re doing well. I gotta send them an old picture or something of when I used to live there
That’s one example where you can introduce elements in a way that’s under your control, and you can sometimes heal and can sometimes get past the trauma. It can be one of the many ways to work through an old trauma.
I want to thank this person for writing to me and I know there’s a lot to discuss in the message that you sent to me but I hope everything I talked about today is helpful to you.
To close the show, I’m going to read you just a tiny little portion of an email where a client and I went back and forth just a few months ago. She wrote back to me and said, “This person said the following to me, he said, ‘I had poor emotional intelligence. I had poor communication skills, and I have poor relationship skills.” And she just was really down on herself. And of course, it was hitting her self-worth.
This doesn’t necessarily tie in with PTSD or emotional triggers, but at the same time it does because we can hear things like that from people in our lives and we can take that with us. Those become the new markers for PTSD, that when we go into other situations that we might think that we are poor in these things, that maybe we are a terrible person, or we just aren’t smart enough or good enough or lovable or worth anyone’s time because we believe this crap.
This is what happens. We sometimes believe false information from disreputable sources. We think that the person that’s telling us is a reputable source, but they’re really not. So we might accept their comments about us as truth.
I wanted to mention this particular email because I wrote back to her and I wanted to read back what I wrote to her. It’s just a three-line thing here. I said, “Wow, someone who tells you that you have poor emotional intelligence lacks emotional intelligence. Someone who tells you that you have poor communication skills has very limited communication skills themselves. And someone who tells you that you have poor relationship skills really doesn’t understand how to relate to people.”
I wrote that back to her because I realized how many things that people tell us that they themselves are inefficient in or simply not very good at or haven’t learned yet. How many judgmental people do you know that are fully accepting and loving and kind?
That’s probably an unfair statement because there are many judgmental people that are also kind and caring, but how many highly judgmental people do are accepting? That’s a good question because if you know someone who is highly judgmental, and they’re putting you down, you really can’t expect them to be accepting and caring and maybe unconditionally loving. Just ike this person, she said that “He said, I have poor emotional intelligence.”
If you tell someone that they have poor emotional intelligence, that is an emotionally unintelligent way to tell them! Which indicates that they are not a good source for that information. If somebody says that you’re terrible at relationships, they are not a good source for telling you how to relate to people, because they’re putting you down. It doesn’t make any sense.
Consider the source because what’s happening here is that some people will put you down in what they lack. In other words, people who are not good at accepting you will call you judgmental. They’ll call you unable to accept people, unable to accept their flaws.
People who are not very supportive will call you unsupportive. This isn’t black and white. This isn’t necessarily tit for tat. It’s just a reminder that some people will tell you things that are absolutely untrue and you’ll believe it’s true because you might not assess that where the information is coming from is from someone who does not embody the qualities of what they’re talking about.
This is akin to taking financial advice from somebody driving a 1982 Toyota where the driver’s seat was ripped out and it’s a milk crate. And they have no extra income themselves. Not that a car is something to judge someone’s worth by, but when you hear someone give you financial advice, and they don’t really have any money to invest or spend, it might not be the best source.
I’m not saying it’s not possible. It could absolutely be possible but when it comes to you carrying something around inside you, that you believed that someone said about you, that is a big deficiency in them, not you. Because healthy behavior does not include putting someone down, making them feel bad, making them hurt, making them feel unworthy, or unlovable.
When somebody does that, they are deficient in many things. And they are not a good source of information. Therefore, you can’t trust what they’re saying about you. In fact, when anybody ever says anything that insults you or offend you or hurts you at the personal level, not like your job performance or something that you could have done better – we’re going to hear that from other people sure – I’m talking about the personal level, like “You’re not even a good enough human being,” you have to realize that the person is saying it can’t be a good enough human being themselves because they said it!
That could be a judgment on my part but I think that when somebody puts you down and insult you at a very personal emotional level, they aren’t accessing their humanity so they may need some healing or they need to work on themselves. But don’t take that as your truth, take that as their deficiency. And then you won’t carry around a sense of unworthiness or unlovableness or thinking that you’re not good enough or smart enough or “Doggone it, people like me.” (That’s an old reference from Saturday Night Live), but you get what I mean.
You are worthy, you are lovable, and you are brilliant. And if you don’t think so, then why are you listening to a show that helps you improve yourself? There’s no reason to listen to it unless you’re already smart. That’s why I love coming on the air because I know I’m talking to smart people. Only smart people want to improve themselves.
The people that aren’t so smart are the ones that are closed-minded and don’t think they need any help, and don’t want to listen to anyone else, and think they’re perfect. I shouldn’t say they’re not smart, but I’m just saying that when you are listening to a show like this, you’re probably more open-minded and you’re probably smarter than the average bear.
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