As a runner and weight lifter, I am very familiar with trigger points – painful balls of muscle or fascia caused by acute or repeated trauma. They are hyperirritable, overresponding to even the slightest pressure or pull. They cause intense pain at their source and can often lead to referred pain in a distant area, frequently occurring along predictable pathways.
As a survivor of a traumatic divorce, I am also very familiar with emotional trigger points – painful memories and associated responses caused by repeated or acute trauma. They are areas of hyperirritability where the response far outweighs the preceding factors. They cause intense pain at the time of their trigger and can cause referred pains in seemingly unrelated areas.
I am consistently amazed at the magnitude and quantity of my emotional triggers. A snippet of a song last night brought me to tears as it reminded me of one of the dogs in my other life. Nothing is safe – smells, sights, words, movies, a date on the calendar. Sixteen years is a long time and it doesn’t leave much untouched. Triggers are like a black hole through space-time, pulling me back to a place of fear and pain.
Not surprisingly, most of my triggers have to do with fear of abandonment or betrayal. These are the ones that petrified me in the early months as their intensity would take me back to the moment I learned that my life as I knew what over, curled on the floor in a fetal position around my phone.
As with physical trigger points, emotional ones also improve with time. My trigger points are fewer and further between and the response is somewhat muted.
But time is not enough.
My triggers have the potential to be a source of tension in my current relationship. It’s not unheard of for Brock to commit a level 1 offense on the Relational Transgression Scale (RTS) and for me to respond as though it is a level 10 misdeed. That’s not fair to him or our partnership, nor do I want to respond in that way.
Aware of the potential damaging nature of my triggers, Brock and I agreed early on in our relationship that I would make a concerted effort to neutralize them as much as possible. These are the strategies that I found useful:
Awareness: The first step was for me to become aware of my triggers, especially when the pain and reaction was referred to a different area. I learned that when I reacted strongly to something, it would behoove me to look deeper to see if my response was actually due to something in my past. Often it was.
Avoidance: Avoidance has its place. In the early months, I simply could not handle certain known triggers. I gave them wide berth until I was strong enough to face them.
Preemptive Strike: Now, when I am going to encounter a known trigger, I work to calm myself ahead of time. Some exercise, meditation and a reminder of my gratitude for my current life go a long way to preventing an overreaction.
Layer: I have reclaimed certain triggers by intentionally layering new and happy memories over top. The old pain is still there, but it muffled by smiles.
Plan: I also have backup plans for those times when the triggers do strike. I am better at stepping back. I remind myself to breath. I know that a long run will help to dissipate the pain and allow me to think again.
Trigger points are difficult to treat. If you try to force them to relax, they will grip and the pain will intensify. The mind almost has a fear of letting go of those painful nodules; it seems as though it works to protect them, those memories of our trauma. Be patient and apply gentle, yet persistent pressure at the point of the pain. Breathe into the tightness and give it permission to fade. The past will be there. The pain will never be forgotten. But you do not have to allow it to keep you bound in agony.