It’s commonly understood that a “trigger” is a stimulus that provokes an extreme traumatic response in a person. Say, for instance: the sound of breaking glass might trigger a flashback of a car accident. Or the smell of gasoline might trigger someone’s traumatic memory of a house fire.
But for some of us, triggers are a bit more, uh…. weird…. than that.
For years after my cult leader Arachne cut contact with me, I became highly prone to dissociation. At first, I thought the dissociations were random, and that I was at the mercy of their unpredictable nature, so I didn’t try to stop the episodes from happening. It took me years to realize there is a pattern to my dissociations; I’ll give you two examples:
- I sometimes dissociate if, in conversation, I am allowed to talk for more than a minute straight.
- I sometimes dissociate if someone asks me multiple questions, one after the other, rapid fire. (“How are you? What’s going on in your life? How’s the writing? How’s your boyfriend? Did you eat? Do you want to grab lunch with me?” – BAM! I’m gone.)
Then, after seeing the pattern, it took some more time to figure out why those particular scenarios made me start “floating.” I was able to trace them both back to Arachne:
- In Arachne’s one-on-one cult, talking for more than a minute meant I was going to get punished. Expressing my own opinions was a no-no. The only reason Arachne would ever let me talk for a long time, was if she was getting ready to shoot down what I had just said, play a mind game on me, or gaslight me (“No, that’s not what you said – this is what you actually said…”). I eventually learned to stop talking and let her talk instead, because the feeling of talking for too long made me anxious.
- One of Arachne’s favorite mind-games to play on me, was what some thought reform experts call “Scrambling.” Scrambling is when someone asks you a long list of questions, aggressively and quickly. You become disoriented from trying to process all the questions at once, and that makes you more impressionable. So then, when they tell you what they think the “right” answers to the questions are, you’re more likely to accept their answers. It’s a tactic often used by salesmen and interrogators. (By the way, please don’t do this to anyone; it’s fucked up.)
Another example of a weird trigger: a fellow cult survivor once told me that, even decades after living on an ashram, he still has difficulty sitting in the audience as someone speaks from a stage. He said it mentally transports him back to the days of the cult, where the followers sat obediently in the audience while the guru pontificated from the podium. The dynamic of sitting below someone while they spoke down to him, “triggers” a mild sensory flashback. He may not feel that his life is being threatened – so it’s not traumatic necessarily – but it can still feel scary and dehumanizing.
I suspect that many cult survivors out there have similar Weird Triggers. Not quite traumatic, but not harmless either. Not quite terrifying, but also not safe. And many of us may never realize what’s happening to us, or take it seriously, precisely because the word “trigger” has become close to meaningless.
Thanks to the likes of Tumblr dot com, “trigger warnings” have been overused to the point where the concept is hardly taken seriously anymore. “Trigger” has now come to mean “anything that makes me mildly uncomfortable” (see trigger warning: Julie Bindel).
People with an agenda have exploited the concept of triggers in the interest of accruing personal and political power. For instance, liberal college students routinely get events canceled and Professors fired over “triggering” political disagreements. Are they really triggered? Probably not. Most sensible people can see right through their act: They leverage the rhetoric of victimhood to their advantage, weaponize their questionable “trauma,” and use this farce to get what they want – all the while crying about how they never get what they want. Mm-hmm. Right.
So now, it seems as though the general public has come to understand triggers in extreme terms: either you’re a Vietnam veteran with LEGITIMATE trauma who is TRIGGERED by fireworks…. or you’re just another Tumblr-radicalized liberal who can’t handle it when someone doesn’t immediately assume that your pronouns are xie/xir/xirself.
This weaponizing of triggers doesn’t only impact how the general public perceives post-traumatic stress. It also impacts how survivors perceive their own trauma! In other words, the term “trigger” has been polarized to the point where people with legitimate trauma don’t recognize that they have legitimate trauma. Or, some do recognize it – but are afraid to admit it, even to themselves. I have heard many, many, MANY trauma survivors express inhibition about describing themselves as “triggered” for fear of being accused of misusing the word.
Can we bring some nuance back to this conversation, please?
Let’s start with this: if you’re reading this right now, and you find yourself resonating with the Weird Triggers I’m describing, then please don’t ignore that inner voice. You know yourself better than anyone else does.
Second, remember that trauma has a function: it’s your brain’s attempt to keep you safe. And just like the function of pain (as I explained in my last post), triggers exist to help you, not to hurt you. After surviving trauma, your brain analyzes the events and comes up with red flags to make sure that trauma never happens to you again. It’s a survival mechanism. When you’re triggered, that’s your brain and body letting you know that something in your environment feels similar to the trauma you experienced, which could mean you’re in danger, so you need to be extra careful moving forward.
The good news is that triggers can be managed, but first you need to acknowledge & validate that you’ve been traumatized, and then you need to trace your traumatic responses back to their source. If you can’t figure out the source, triggers will help you find it. Think of them as a bread crumb trail.
Now here’s the thing about Weird Triggers: the source of the triggers may be more difficult to discern. Based on my experience and observations of other people, I’ve concluded that this is because traditional triggers (loud noises, the smell of gasoline,etc.) tend to result from violent and/or short-term trauma. Weird Triggers, on the other hand, seem to result from long-term, complex trauma.
Complex Past Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD, is a relatively new, and controversial, diagnosis. Some people argue that it’s just a politically correct label for Borderline Personality Disorder (which I would gladly debate them on). And because C-PTSD was only recently included in the DSM, many survivors of long-term abuse (myself included) have resorted to self-diagnosing this disorder. This prevalence of self diagnosis by non-medical professionals has led to a lot of confusion about what C-PTSD really is, which has subsequently contributed to the diagnosis not being taken seriously.
But hopefully my audience is still willing to hear my input on this topic. With unusual experiences like cultic abuse, people like me have a very limited range of terms to use when analyzing our experiences. In all my years of firsthand experience and secondhand research, I have found C-PTSD to be the most accurate descriptor of how cultic abuse shaped me as a person. I do not use the word lightly, and I do welcome critiques and feedback on my usage thereof.
All of that said, let’s do a quick comparison of the two. This comparison is in no way complete or definitive, given that I am not medical professional or an authority on the subject, so I strongly encourage you to continue researching the topic beyond this limited blog post, before drawing any conclusions about these disorders. Here are some good starting points: 1, 2, 3
tends to result from exposure to short-term trauma (like accidents or physical attacks), torture, and physical or sexual assault
tends to result from long-term trauma, such as chronic abuse (including verbal and spiritual abuse), imprisonment, and prolonged crisis situations
Danger is immediate and severe (attempted or complete rapes, and attempted murders, fall into this category)
Danger may not be immediate or severe, but target is led to believe that it is, usually with threats, or with displays of violence not directed at the target (such as the abuser smashing plates when angry)
tends to produce overt traumatic responses, such as panic attacks and flashbacks
tends to produce covert traumatic responses, such as dissociation, submissive behavior, and self injurious impulses
Keep in mind that these experiences can overlap. For instance, you might be a survivor of abuse that is life-threatening and long-term; as a result, you may develop a score of triggers that range from overt to covert. I’ll stress this again: please continue your research on this topic, and don’t let my blog post be the end of your learning!
Back to Weird Triggers:
As I said earlier, there are certain social contexts that make me mentally retrogress into the state of helplessness I felt when being abused by my cult leader. Was I in immediate danger back then? Technically, no. But my abuser made me believe that I was, so, my brain responded accordingly to that threat by ensuring that I feel “triggered” (read: I feel unsafe) in any scenario that feels similar to the abuse. That means even mundane conversations can be triggering, unbeknownst to the person I’m speaking with.
My trauma impacts my everyday life. My triggers are not cards that I pull when a conversation gets uncomfortably political. They’re not cards at all! I hate that metaphor. Post-trauma life is not a game. And even if it was, it would not be a game that I could win.
Society at large is only recently beginning to acknowledge trauma in mainstream discourse. The discourse is, unfortunately, being hijacked by self-interested political entities. But I feel a strong conviction to establish rhetorical boundaries around what triggers are. Whether our triggers are extreme or mundane, our experiences are valid and important. I refuse to allow anyone to downplay the way trauma impacts my everyday life, and I encourage my fellow survivors to be unapologetic as well. The discourse rightfully belongs to survivors of trauma. Let’s keep making our voices heard!