The following is a guest post written by Karin Beschen, a Warrior Mom living in Iowa with her husband and two sons.
She works as a psychotherapist, specializing in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
This morning I walked outside to grab the newspaper and felt the distinct autumn chill. It’s the same chill that has always made me smile because it’s paired with cozy sweaters, hot apple cider and football. Then I took a breath. It wasn’t a breath of warm memories; it was suddenly a breath of fear and panic – an inhale that has become a familiar blend of sinking and stinging through my whole body.
“I’m okay. I’m safe.”
It’s been years since my son’s traumatic birth, but every first scent of the season nearly sends me to my knees. I have done a tremendous amount of work with the trauma, yet my journey continues to be scattered with these triggers – these “rocks” on my path of healing. Rocks that I kick, boulders that I avoid and pebbles that I hold lovingly in my hand.
Early on, the triggers were overwhelming. My mind easily fell back to my son’s birth and related events and it was difficult – sometimes impossible – to be in the present moment. I was fearful of what I may see, smell, feel or hear that would begin the flood of thoughts and images. Some triggers were more evident and I could prepare for them and work through them fairly quickly. Other triggers were spontaneous and seemed to have the most power behind them. These were the times when it felt like someone put a fresh set of batteries in my mind – everything felt brighter, sharper, louder … scarier.
People tend to think triggers are negative things – obvious things from the trauma. Many of my triggers were items or experiences I had previously associated with happiness or pleasure – seeing pregnancy, a baby aisle at the store or maternity clothing. Post-birth these things would jolt me and they became a source of avoidance and aversion. They symbolized a tremendous amount of loss and disappointment. They reminded me how everything changed from calm to chaos in a handful of minutes.
Coping with Triggers
It’s impossible to completely avoid triggers, so it’s important to learn how to cope with them. There are numerous effective, healthy strategies for managing triggers of post-traumatic stress (and can be valuable with any perinatal emotional distress).
The list below outlines a few ideas for lessening the impact of triggers. I’ve found them especially helpful because they can be used in a variety of environments, even when my son was napping in my arms.
Finding Presence: Grounding exercises are a way to connect with the present moment. They help by easing out of the distressing thoughts and becoming more aware of the immediate environment. “Out of the mind and into the body.” Simple body movements like stretching or walking around the house (feeling feet on the floor, altering light and heavy steps) can improve presence.
Taking away the story: The triggers are triggering because they carry a story. I found it helpful to take in the triggering object or situation for what it was – without the narrative. It can be challenging to do in the moment, but becomes easier with time and practice. For example, the hospital baby blanket was a trigger for me. Even though I had put ours away, the familiar blanket seemed to follow me around town, pop up in other babies’ photos and plague me with fear. I re-introduced myself to the blanket without the story. It was soft, light-weight, rectangular and had pastel footprints printed on one side. Little by little, the traumatic story that had been associated with the blanket lessened.
Care and affirmation: Holding my hand to my heart was a way of feeling and showing self-compassion. It was an important gesture that I did throughout the day, especially at times when I felt the least-deserving of care. It offered a pause. I was going through the most difficult time of my life and I needed to be kind to myself.
I had a few affirmations to write or say to myself to acknowledge that I was safe in that moment (no matter how real my flashback felt) and the original experience/trauma was over.
“I’m okay. I’m safe.”
“All of my feelings are okay.”
“I will feel better.”
“I can heal.”
Affirmations can become reality. I am safe. Every feeling I’ve had and every one I continue to have is okay. I am better – a lot better. I’m healing. Every day brings more healing, and I will continue to walk on the path. Rocks and all.