It's normal to experience triggers when traumatised by sexual betrayal.
Your sense of safety is likely all out of whack because you've found out that your trusted intimate partner has been keeping a sexual secret that impacts you deeply. The brain's safety system is on full alert, and literally anything can trigger your fight, flight, freeze, fawn response.
You're out shopping when perfume wafts past you, causing you to freeze. Your cheeks feel hot and your heart pounds. You feels confused, angry, afraid all wrapped up in one. Whatever you were thinking about the moment before is gone. All you want to do is cry or scream or run away.
He’s expected home at 6:00 and you’ve been waiting for him to arrive, nervously glancing at the clock. At 6:30 there’s no husband and no message to say what’s happening. Your hands start shaking and the pacing starts. Where is he? What could he be doing? Why haven’t you heard anything? Is he acting out again? Are there more secrets you don’t know about? When he breezes in the door at 7:00, you launch angrily into him, refuse to speak to him at all or collapse into uncontrollable crying.
You’re relaxing with a show when an ad with provocative images crosses the screen. Instantly your relaxed feeling has become a tidal wave of panic. You’re mad at the world, mad at him, mad at porn, and scared of what’s coming next. Frozen yet out of control, confusion sets in. You can’t sit still and your mind races. Maybe your tortured thought loops go into overdrive. Maybe you go numb and your thinking is mush, or you start searching for more evidence of betrayal until exhausted you fall into bed with a throbbing head.
After sexual betrayal, trauma triggers play havoc with your mind, emotions and body. Nothing makes sense, nothing feels safe, and just when you’re starting to relax, your survival instincts send you back into full alert. Like an anxious dog that barks all night and won’t settle, the amygdala is hyper activated by the trauma of betrayal and floods your brain with signals that you are not safe. This experience is exhausting and overwhelming and can seem as if it will never end.
Managing triggers starts with calming the barking dog.
It’s neurological fact that an amygdala on alert impedes clear thinking. To make progress with a triggered brain, the barking dog first needs to be soothed.
Here are some proven strategies to soothe the brain’s alarm system and move towards calmer.
Be gentle with yourself. When the overwhelm of a trigger floods you, remind yourself it’s normal for you to experience triggers because of what you’ve been through. Avoid adding to your pain by feeling shame about your triggered state.
Speak the language of your amygdala. Your trauma brain bypasses the thinking brain and communicates directly with the senses. You can let it know that you are safe in the present moment by activating your sensory pathways. Feel your feet on the ground, the air on your face. Hear the sounds of birds outside or cars driving past. Smell your hands, sip some water or put a mint in your mouth. Try practicing 3x3x3: naming 3 things you can see, 3 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel or touch. The action of naming helps your thinking brain to come back online.
Take control of your breathing. Slow, deep breaths soothe the nervous system and give you a sense of control in the midst of crazy. Pay attention as the air flows in and expands your chest, hold it for a few seconds then slowly release, noticing the deflating sensation. You can try linking the breaths to a simple phrase or prayer such as, “I’m/ safe” or “Jesus,/ you’re here” or even “Yah/weh”, God’s covenant name. Breathe in the first part of the phrase; breathe out the second part.
Ask for what you need. If you partner is with you, and he is working towards becoming a safe person for you, you can connect with him when you are triggered. Let him know you’re triggered and tell him what you need. This is an opportunity for him to offer you empathy with the AVR tool described by Carol the Coach. Knowing what you need in the moment can be tricky so learn to trust what your gut is telling you. Do you want him to come closer, leave the room, sit on the floor, deal with the kids, get you a drink? And if your sense of need changes in the moment, it’s okay to tell him that too.
Practicing self-care is essential stewardship for this season. Sleep and eat the best you can manage and take time for fresh air and exercise. Slow down and give yourself permission to say no to things that seem too much right now. Practice mindfulness by staying present in little moments as you sip a cup of tea, smell your baby’s head or pause to notice the stars twinkling at night.
Connect with your safe people. Healing from trauma happens best in the context of safe community. Find one or two people who can support you with care and join a group if you can.
Take heart, my friend. Triggers are part of the fallout of betrayal trauma, but they will lessen as you look after yourself well and connect with safety. Your healing matters. It’s been said that if you want to heal quickly, go slowly. Slow down and take time for you. You are worth it.
To learn more about my BT support group, click here.