It’s better to be prepared for panic than to rely on prevention.
I got rearended by a U-Haul, once. I was sitting at a red light, and the U-Haul driver was fiddling with the radio or the air conditioning (this is before texting) and hadn’t noticed the traffic light had changed. For months after the car accident, whenever I saw a car coming fast from behind in my rear view mirror, I felt a jolt of anxiety. A sick, tightening in the guts. I got the sweats. And then it was over. Again and again, the cars slowed and stopped without touching my rear bumper.
This is called having flashbacks. The cars in my rear view mirror, not crashing into me, were the triggers.
Flashbacks are rarely in all of the senses, like they are in the movies. What cannot be conveyed except artistically is how the feelings come rushing back in a flashback, the felt sense of being in that place. In a flashback, my whole body is on alert. My perspective narrows to admit two categories into the world, those things that are safe, and those that are threats. When I feel this way, my amygdala is taking over, constricting blood flow to the front of my brain, where I do all of my thinking. In panic mode, we all have the same, short decision tree: fight, run away, freeze, flatter, or submit.
Last week I was with friends, having dinner, and one was telling us about a reality show he likes, featuring very poor parenting. Kevin said, “Hey, could we not talk about this? Because we’re losing Justin.” And I didn’t know it was true until he said it. I was eager to get away from the subject matter, so I did… on the inside, without choosing it consciously. On the outside, I was frozen and unable to say anything. Becoming aware that I’m noticeably frozen and mute, that I’m panicking, makes it worse.
Spiders are scary. We humans are designed to have a prejudice against creeping things with lots of legs. But we also are designed to have smart brains capable of discerning, naming, and sharing information, on which species are poisonous, and which are harmless. We can show non-fatal, non-dangerous digital images of spiders to one another all day long, and no one gets bitten. That’s our leg up on the competition: a bear either knows a snake is dangerous or doesn’t. He can’t learn the difference on Wikipedia.
Getting triggered feels like being a victim again, but it is not a revictimization. The bad thing is not happening. Here, I can turn off the computer, make the horrible spider go away.
The impact from the moving van threw the pickup truck into the middle of the intersection. I heard the smashing sound and then the silence. I could feel the little pebbles of safety glass in my hair. My first thought was, I need to get out of the intersection. I thought the other cars would just start up again and want to come past and around me, without regard for what had just happened, and this would be unsafe, so I needed to move. The truck had stalled, but I was able to start it again. I drove across the intersection and pulled over.
After the U-Haul incident, I knew what caused the trauma. In non-panicked times, I could remember the accident, the details and timeline of the sickening moment I re-experienced each time I looked in the rear view mirror and my lizard brain thought, “It’s happening again.” Every day after my accident, I drove, and hundreds of cars pulled up behind mine and did not crash into me. Eventually, the symptoms faded. But with other triggers, I’m not so lucky. I still have them, every day.
So how do you plan to deal with being taken out of your head? Do you tell the whole world, “Hey everyone, here’s a list of the stuff I can’t deal with, and would you please not talk about them in front of me?” In the real world, you’re going to get less than 100% compliance. I’ve known my reality TV loving buddy for ten years, but he had no idea his talk was affecting me. Because of the wide variety of things that people with PTSD find triggering, there is no way to get satisfactory trigger warning coverage for everyone. There isn’t even adequate coverage for one person, because how do you make an exhaustive list of all of the things that panic you and make it impossible for you to think?
Trigger warnings are a way of bringing your cage out with you into the world. And your amygdala is not going to agree with me on this one, but not everything that is scary is dangerous. And information about scary shit is necessary, even though learning about it can be triggering for some people. Are you not going to let anyone educate your children about what to do if a gunman comes to their school, because it’s too scary to think about guns, or violence against children? This approach has been consistently disastrous, from the way Americans have approached sexuality education, to our imperialist problems with domestic gun control and immigration. Adopting a strategy of trigger-proofing the world for ourselves means we don’t ever talk about the serious shit that hurts and kills us. And that might please our amygdalas, who are not big thinkers, but it’s not how we’ve succeeded as a species. We can learn the difference between a concept we find threatening, and a speeding U-Haul approaching in the rear view mirror.
We can plan to be prepared, to be extent that is reasonable. Which means not relying on the unreasonable. Getting panicked is something that happens. You can learn how to get grounded, when you are freaking out about something you see on your screen. Put your feet down. Breathe. Look around and notice something in the room with you. Describe it. I’ve made habits of these exercises, because I need them all the time. They don’t always work, but it’s better to have tools than to make my emotional intelligence someone else’s job.
While it’s awesome and affirming for my husband to recognize when I’m triggered, to change the subject, and help me realize that I’m not there right now, the only kinds of changes that are going to help me long term with my PTSD are the ones I can implement. It’s not something anyone else can do for me: not my community or a web browser plug in, not even my therapist or my loved ones can protect me from getting triggered. And that, my friends, is the good news about trigger warnings not working. You are not at the mercy of others. You are in charge and most highly qualified to manage your own panic. That’s the reason for the exercises, and the thoughtful consideration of how we humans work in a crisis. Because it’s better to be prepared.
Image credit: animals.desktopnexus.com