I could feel it washing over me like a great wave trying to pull me under, both blinding me and choking me. My body went into full-on fight or flight mode, any rational thinking put on hold until the emergency passed.
What was the emergency, you ask?
My now-husband mentioned wanting to build a home theater in the basement.
I know, it’s a terrifying image.
This happened over six years ago and now I can laugh at the absurdity of my (over)reaction. But at the time, I truly was convinced that this was a serious threat to my well-being. I was responding to something in the present – my husband wanting to build a theater – with the emotions born from past experiences – my ex-husband building a home office in the basement that became the center of operations for his deceptions.
On the day of this particular melt down over the proposed theater, I remember being aware that the intensity of my response in no way matched the reality of the situation. But there was another part of me that was whispering, “What if this reaction is because you’re picking up on some real threat in the present?”
And I didn’t know which voice to believe.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We never know know for sure if what we’re feeling is a misplaced echo from the past or our intuition picking up on a real threat in the present.
There are four basic categories between our reactions and what triggers them –
Responding to the Present From the Present
Your past experiences have taught you what to look for. You are better able to see actions that are misaligned to what you’ve been told and you’re more aware of unhealthy patterns. When something concerning happens, you use what you have learned to analyze it to decide if there are any real threats within.
You no longer have much emotional reaction from the past, so you trust that any you’re feeling now is an appropriate response to what is actually happening in the here and now. Furthermore, your reactions are on par with the behavior or sign you’re responding to. The response would be considered a reasonable one for anybody to have in similar circumstances.
Responding to the Present From the Past
Your past experiences are still living just beneath the surface. They have left you fragile, fearful. When something concerning happens in the present, it reignites those past concerns, an alarm sounding at full-blast, warning you that danger has arrived. Only the alarm is often false.
The emotional response is powerful, overwhelming, its intensity way out of line to what you’re responding to. You may even be aware that you’re overreacting, yet you feel powerless to stop it. Panic sets in. You become convinced that this is a sign that the past is about to repeat itself. You may respond with plans to flee, an instinct to fight or the desire to curl up and hide from the perceived threat. It’s best to take a time-out to allow some space for the body to calm before deciding to take any action.
Responding to the Past From the Present
This response comes when you encounter a reminder from the past, but you do not have an emotional response to it. Instead, you are able to look back with some clarity, applying what you know now to what you experienced then.
These are healing moments that provide valuable insight into what threats are real and which ones are born from a fear of being hurt again. This is learning – and healing – in action.
Responding to the Past From the Past
These are perhaps the most terrifying moments, when it’s as though a wormhole has transported you back to where you were with the same intensity of emotions and lack of perspective that you had when you were in the midst of it all.
When in the throws of a flashback, rational thinking and self-control is pretty much an impossibility. It becomes about survival, riding it out until it abates. Reminding yourself that it’s not real, that you are safe.
Should you believe your triggers?
Our emotional reactions are important, they provide us with information about our fears and about what is happening around us. Yet emotions are not always an accurate source of information. So listen to them, but don’t always believe everything they have to say.