Tips for Compassion in a Triggered World

Another one from the archives, that I never posted here! Yay for site updates. ;-P

This was originally written just after the last election, I believe, but I still find much of its content relevant today. It’s not about politics, it’s about love. 😉


Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, this week has been very interesting. As with every election season, some people are celebrating, while some people are struggling.
I won’t lie, I honestly do my best to stay out of the political world. I don’t love government, I don’t love talking about it, and I don’t understand probably most of it. I think that actually puts me on par with a lot of Americans. It’s not that I don’t want to be informed, I very much do; being informed and intelligent are things I pride myself on, actually. I just have so many things I want to do with my time, and watching other people argue has never been all that interesting to me. I find it more aggravating and triggering than anything else. In the recent past I’ve been experimenting with not necessarily avoiding, but give him a wide berth to the things that I think might be triggering for me. I’ve been trying to live in a calmer place, a place where my emotions don’t have an opportunity to take over as voluminously as I have experienced in the past. I have recently been experimenting with various ways of dealing with my own trauma and triggers, and observing others and how they deal with the triggering experiences in their lives, and I’ve come up with some ideas on managing that, not only in myself, but in how I deal with others in their stress, too.
For those of you who don’t know, a “trigger” is something that brings up an event or experience from the past, usually a traumatic, or at least extremely impactful, one. They don’t have to be negative, however. There are things that can trigger happy memories, too. Any kind of powerful or transformative experience can have strong reminder mechanisms tied to it, and things that make you strongly remember that time, almost as if you were re-experiencing it, are triggers. [Addition: Even if you can’t remember if it’s tied to an event from your past, when strong emotions surface, especially if the current situation doesn’t really warrant the extremity of your current feeling state, it’s probably being triggered by a past event.]
Most of the time a “trigger” refers to a negative experience, though. Or sometimes, strangely, an event that seems like it could be a happy trigger will actually produce other extreme emotions, such as aggression, or voluminous exuberance which may be interpreted as aggression (for example: sports fans whose team just won, and who feel the need to do something physical, like chest-bump each other).
Triggers can be very extreme in their manifestation. People who have survived massive or repetitive trauma can feel like they are in that exact situation all over again, and may react as though they are in extreme danger or pain, even from what appears (to the non-triggered person/people), to be very minimal stimulus.
Right now there are a lot of triggered people in the world. Some of them are triggered in a positive way, and some in a negative way. Their behaviors may seem unfathomable to you or me, but there are some important things to remember when dealing with people in your life who may be experiencing extreme emotion… especially if those people are *you,* and/or the people close to you (close in this case could mean emotionally, or just in your physical proximity).
  • It’s almost certainly NOT about you. If you have just done an action or said a thing that has triggered someone, it’s likely that they might go into shock, or even lash out at you unexpectedly. It’s probably not really about what you just said or did, but that doesn’t make it any less real for the person who was triggered. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but it does mean you might need to apologize, even if your intentions were good. You can say you’re sorry about something without necessarily self-flagellating for being bad or wrong. (See Bryan Reeves’s *brilliant* piece on apologies here.)
  • Telling them what to do may backfire. If you see someone start panicking, saying “Calm down!” or “You need to relax!” may not have the desired effect. Instead, try asking them questions like, “Are you feeling upset right now?” “Is something wrong?” or, “Are you ok?” Asking them if you can do something for them will sometimes help, but unless they are very self-aware, they may not be able to tell you. You can try making suggestions, like “it sometimes helps me to take a deep breath when I’m feeling shaky,” but if they say that’s not helping, don’t push, just try to be respectful and patient.
  • Fear activates our inner 3-year-old. At our core, the terrified part of ourselves is always child-like. When we feel unsafe, or angry, or afraid, our “reasonable adult” brain isn’t always in control anymore, and the scared child inside wants to scream, cry, throw a tantrum, run away, flail, or all of these at once. If we can remember this when either we, or someone we are observing, is starting to get upset, we may be able to approach the situation with more gentleness. Try not to be condescending (I mean, baby-talk with an upset adult is likely to get you some funny looks), but try to just be curious yet calm. Investigate the situation with as little attachment to judgement as possible. If the person who is upset accuses you of something, try not to take it personally. Try to just say to yourself “Ok, this person is upset. I can look past this particular thing for now, and just investigate how to help them feel better again.” That being said, keep yourself safe, too. (See “Don’t be fearful, but don’t be cocky.” for more on this.)
If you know you are someone who is easily triggered, or if you’re feeling more scared than usual right now, because the recent political battle between the two candidates has been so intensely emotionally charged on *all* sides, it’s important to bring both your internal and external awareness to the party right now. I have heard people in my close communities say that they are wanting to stay home more at the moment, and I’ve been seeing some news about both big protests, and big celebrations, that contain lots of highly emotionally charged people. (See previous comments about a trigger’s ability to bring powerful emotions, be they happy or sad.)
Here are some tips for keeping yourself and your loved ones out of harm’s way when gratuitous and public emotional displays of others may become overwhelming:
  • Don’t be fearful, but don’t be cocky, either. If you decide *never* to leave your house again because you’re worried about either celebrators or protesters stampeding you, that may not serve you terribly well for very long. Living in fear of what could happen only means we restrict ourselves unnecessarily, and it severely limits the growth, joy, and world we can experience. However, being smart about where, how, and with whom you move about the world can help alleviate some of this anxiety. I don’t mean be exclusionary (because that’s a major part of what’s scaring folks right now, in this coach’s humble opinion), I just mean surround yourself with like-minded individuals, and remember that there’s safety in numbers. Do the things you would want your kids or best friend to do to keep themselves safe when they’re not feeling their best: call a friend to go with you somewhere, go to familiar places that you know well and feel comfortable in; things like that. And be aware of your surroundings. I don’t mean notice every dark shadow, just keep your eyes open and know what’s happening in your immediate vicinity. If you don’t feel particularly perceptive or keen, go back to the strength in numbers strategy, and go with a friend to the store, etc. This is a tool I use a lot when I’m struggling, regardless of the reason. Most of the time my brain isn’t functioning fully during times of stress anyway, so I need someone else’s brain to help me remember how to human. (Hey, Lessa, did you notice your shirt’s inside out? Didn’t you say you wanted to get celery while we’re at the store? Are you feeling up for driving, or shall I? That kind of support… )
  • PRACTICE SELF CARE. This is an all-the-time thing, but it’s incredibly important when you’re feeling stressed (which is ironically the time when you’re likely least prepared or available to do it 😉 ). Dragging yourself back from whatever edge you might be careening towards at break-neck speed can be incredibly challenging (ask me how I know, right?), but doing the things we know can help us reign it in *before* we run off the cliff *will* help. Even if they’re small things, like: take a walk, take a shower, brush your hair/teeth/dog, lie flat on the floor for 10 minutes, jump up and down (because you can’t think of anything else to do, and at least that’s something, even though it feels completely silly). Physical activity, even when it’s just a tiny bit, is *crucial* in helping get your brain the chemical support it needs when you feel down.
  • Smile. Relax your face, that little space between your eyebrows, your jaw, etc., and allow your mouth to curve up at the corners. It’s such a small thing, but it can make SUCH a HUGE difference. I don’t just mean smile at the people around you, I mean smile *any time you remember to.* I just did it right now, as I wrote the word. When I’m stressed, or even just concentrating hard, I furrow my brows, and push my lips out, and generally tighten my face all over. My shoulders, too. Recently I have been making a conscious effort to relax my face, especially that place between my brows, and I have really noticed a difference in how I relate to what’s in front of me (what or whomever that happens to be). The situation almost always looks better immediately, and I’m sure so does my face! ;-D I definitely find that it relaxes and lights up those around me, too.
So whether you’re stressed because of the political climate, or you’re observing the big emotions around you, positive or negative, I hope you find these tips useful. Let me know if you do, or if you want to share any other tips or feelings with me.
I am definitely open to offering space to anyone needing to process whatever feelings they have coming up in this very interesting political time. Feel free to reach out to me by email, or get on my calendar, even if you just need to talk. It doesn’t actually have to be about sex. Amazingly, I talk to people about other things, too. 😉
Above all, keep breathing. It’s the most basic, and most useful, tool we all have.
Love you,

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