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November 20, 2013 9:25 PM   Subscribe

How do I get better at not ignoring all the positive emotional work I've done when suddenly being triggered in a high-stress low-functioning situation?

So I've noticed that despite all the emotional and psychological work I'm doing to improve myself (therapy included), when I'm dealing with too.much stress or recovering from a majorly stressful period, anything that vaguely reminds me of a past stressor triggers me and all the work flies out the window. It's like in my panic response I ignore all the failsafes and regress to my old state. I've lost valuable people because of this and I don't want to do this again.

I'm in therapy and on psych meds. I've noticed this happens soon after I try to recover from serious trauma - It's like my foundations crumbled and even when so much of me is screaming NO DON'T DO IT WAIT there is a destructive part that takes over and makes it as though I've never learned anything.

How do I catch myself faster especially when I'm struggling to function? When things are generally more stable or calm I'm more able to act more rationally, but in times of chaos I just seem to get caught up in the chaos.

How do I build inner stability? How do I get all the skills I learnt to be really so ingrained in me that they become the automatic response? I'm worried that I'll put in all this hard work now (which I am) and then when it really matters I fail. Again. Argh.
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Assume full meltdown is a 10, everyday calm state is a 0.

It sounds like you're saying that you don't catch yourself until you're at 10. So think about what 9 feels like. What physical signs are there? Maybe clenching your jaw, nausea, heated face, clenched fists, tight shoulders, something else? What thoughts are happening? Can you get to a place where you can recognize when you're at a 9, stop yourself from acting, and go back to your basic rational talking-yourself-down skills?

Practice that for a while. Then try to figure out what 8 feels like, and how to recognize and stop at 8. Keep going down to 3-ish, maybe?, or whatever number feels like "This is a controllable reaction to a stressful situation."
posted by jaguar at 9:54 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

What kind of practices do you do to feel grounded? Could you combine those with stressful elements so that you can practice staying calm under stress?

Two examples to illustrate my question:
- I used to do a lot of yoga, and there's this breathing that they taught you to use. So when I switched into the more difficult class, I spent a lot of moments trying to hold a difficult posture as all my muscles started to burn and shake, all the while relying on this breathing. The funny thing was that I started to notice myself occasionally slipping into the breathing at non-yoga times. It was both a great indicator of my stress level and also good comfort, reminding me I could feel pain and stress and still stand still.

- Someone else told me a similar story of taking a martial art and that her teacher felt it was important for them to be able to stay grounded and think even while being attacked. So they would actually practice with the teacher attacking them (not sure how this actually worked). I could see this being potentially helpful for certain kinds of triggers.

I'm not sure if that's the kind of thing you're looking for, or if these stressful situations play out over a less instantaneous time frame, but I wish you the best in figuring this out (and am looking forward to hearing the answers myself).
posted by salvia at 10:05 PM on November 20, 2013

I would say get an anti trigger to help you through. Like a nice sweater or wrap. And say, "excuse me," and go to the washroom or a quiet room and wrap this thing around you, and take a few breaths to make sure you're grounded in the moment (not the past). So it's like a shield.

After a while, you will be able to make the shield happen without the sweater but sort of stand tall and wrap the aura of it around you. Just get into the habit of it first, say.

As far as the triggers, it's not so much that they trigger you, it's recognizing it and being able to say, Self, need a few minutes to recover. Whether that's making an excuse to go powder your nose or go for a walk, depends on the situation. It could be pretending you have to blow your nose or clear your throat. Feel the panic? Assess: are you really threatened? If not, sweater or hanky to the rescue. If that doesn't do the trick, pretend it's allergies or a cold. "'Scuse me, have to run out and grab my drops/inhaler/allergy pills." Usually with panic, if you can interrupt the event, it will subside. Cold water on the wrists, wet paper towel on the head (vagus nerve, etc.). It really does help.

If it's more than that, rages and things, I question the meds and therapy because you should be able to function enough to feel in control of your situation when it strikes. Either have a pill for it or a strategy. If those aren't working, you need to go back and ask for something else, as needed meds or more coping tools.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:41 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pay attention to what being successful with your emotions feels like. Notice during the stable and good periods that you have control of yourself, you are calm, nothing is threatening you, and then consciously summon that feeling all during the day on the good days. Practice consciously feeling this throughout the day. Notice and deliberately recall the feeling often, summon it up, so to speak, so that are very familiar with feeling that way.

If you find yourself feeling stressed, start your day over, mentally. Center yourself, mentally reject the stress, don't swallow it and start tensing up. Take a time out and get back the feeling of stability, and then return to your day. (Notice how well you behave toward others and engage with your work when you're on top of things, etc. Also remember HALT--hungry, angry, lonely, tired--conditions will make you vulnerable to losing it and if a stressor shows up while you are vulnerable it is much harder to reject.) I think frequent self-checks will enable you to notice when something has changed early in the process, before the level of meltdown and you'll have good practice at re-centering and can immediately go to your time out and start your day over.

Try to make it about learning and exercising your own emotional strength, rather than about avoiding stress. I discovered that it helped me to have a goal of not living in fear. I didn't know how I was going to do that but it was what I wanted to accomplish. Medication and therapy help but much of the work is left to you. I think you also have to practice and get stronger in the good times--when it's bad, it's too late to practice.
posted by Anitanola at 1:05 AM on November 21, 2013

I read a story in a book about meditation about this very thing. I'm paraphrasing, but here goes:

Imagine a street. You walk along this street every day, and every day you fall down a big hole that some workmen have dug. You do this out of habit. Than, one day, you get some new glasses. Finally, you can see the street properly, and even see the big hole. But you still walk the same path and fall down the hole. As you're falling, you ask yourself why you're still walking into the big hole even though you can see it now. The answer is, you're a] doing it partially out of habit, and b] not looking far enough ahead to see the hole before your momentum carries you over. New glasses aren't enough if you're only looking at where your feet are, rather than what they're going to carry you into.

To stop falling down the hole, look further ahead. You know the hole is coming up, somewhere ahead, so look for the signs pointing to it. At first, you're not going to see most of the signs, because they're spread about and not conveniently located in one place. But that's good; an early sign can alert you earlier on that the hole is coming up and you can take evasive action.

Also, change your path. If you know that heading straight ahead is going to lead you into the hole, take a detour. Try a totally different route. Maybe cross the road to get around the hole, or have someone keep an eye out while they're walking with you, to remind you that the hole is approaching. Develop a new habitual route down this road that leads you around the hole.

Try to be mindful of what sets you off, and how. As well as that, try to develop better coping strategies for the things that upset you. If you know that lack of sleep has an adverse effect on your ability to navigate round the hole, make sure you're getting more sleep. If a cup of coffee helps you be more awake to where the hole is, have a drink.

Finally, if you do end up walking into the hole, look at what you were doing just previously that might have led you down a well worn path. Maybe you went to the metaphorical bakery and ate a load of cream cakes. Next time, try avoiding the bakery or just having half of the amount of cake you'd normally have. Also, remember that sometimes you have to be aware of what the path to the hole is like just so you can purposefully avoid it. If you ignore the path to the hole, you're just going to keep walking down it because you haven't learned a different route.
posted by Solomon at 9:02 AM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chapters of My Life
By Portia Nelson

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place. But, it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there. I still fall in ... it's a habit ... but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am. It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.
posted by jaguar at 9:50 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

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