How to help your partner when they’re emotionally overwhelmed.
“Triggers are external events or circumstances that may produce very uncomfortable emotional or psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety, panic, discouragement, despair, or negative self-talk. Reacting to triggers is normal, but if we don’t recognize them and respond to them appropriately, they may actually cause a downward spiral, making us feel worse and worse.”MentalHelp.net
It was my birthday yesterday. I don’t know about you, but for this mom, birthdays involve making my own cake and running kids to various activities, regardless of the fact that this is my special day. It’s just one of those things about being a grown up where you put aside your own wants for the sake of others.
I did not like this. I did not want to make my own supper. I did not want to make my own cake. I did not want to run children to activities. So I didn’t handle it very well.
I ended up triggering my husband with my words and actions. Not good. Not good at all.
What is triggering you ask?
I will define it from my point of view. Not scholarly and scientific perhaps, but gathered from personal experience and stories from other people who have walked a similar path.
Triggering is when someone gives you a certain look, has a certain tone of voice with you, treats you a certain way, says a certain thing, or does something as simple as walk on by you, and all of a sudden you are not ok.
You are taken back to that place, that moment, that time, where you were shamed, you were humiliated, you were afraid, you were hurt. Your inner voice says things like ” I’m not enough. I’ll never be enough” or ” you’re just going to leave me because everyone else has” or ” I can’t do anything right, I’m worthless.”
And you don’t know how to escape that inner voice. You’re stuck.
For someone carrying scars and baggage from an abusive spouse, or a dysfunctional family, the triggers can be numerous. They can feel like they’re never going to go away. That you’re never going to be able to get though life without experiencing them multiple times a day, or a week, or a month or a year.
When G and I first got together we were both so damaged that we triggered each other continuously without meaning to. As we’ve gotten to know one another, and we’ve been open and honest in how were are feeling and what we are thinking, the frequency and duration has lessened.
Most of the time we are able to discern what pit of personal hell the other person has just tripped and fallen into.
Climbing back out of the pit has gradually become easier. Avoiding the minefields has become easier. But it still happens.
Here is some advice that has helped G and me when one of us is triggered. This may not be suited to everyone, because this advice applies to someone who is in flight or freeze, and shuts down. This is where the two of us end up when we are triggered. With someone in fight mode, the advice would most likely somewhat deviate from the below statements.
“The best relationships in our lives are the best not because they have been the happiest ones, they are that way because they have stayed strong through the most tormentful of storms.”Pandora Poikilos, Excuse Me, My Brains Have Stepped Out
If your partner is triggered and shuts down:
Number 1: Take care of YOU!
Hard to remember but so important. When we were in the thick of some of the worst days of our existence, I called G’s sister. G’s sister is a psychologist and a very wise person. I remember crying into the phone saying “ I can’t get him to eat! I can’t get him to drink! I can’t get him to move! What do I do?!”
Her response to me: “ what are you doing to take care of you”.
It seems so counterintuitive, but it’s probably one of the most valuable things anyone has ever said to me. You cannot care for others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
Number 2: Get them out of their current environment.
This one is big. When we stay in the same place, our brains stay in the same place. Get outside. Go for a walk. Go for a drive. Give your brain something new to focus on and be curious about.
Don’t be surprised if the triggered person resists this idea. It seems too overwhelming and unhelpful to them in the current moment. However if you can get them to move, to look at new things, to smell new scents, to hear new voices, it helps.
Number 3: Give them something to eat.
When we are experiencing emotional trauma, our body tends to put digestion on hold. We don’t feel hungry. We don’t want to eat. Our blood sugar drops and we start to feel even more exhausted and hopeless and like there’s no point so why even bother.
I try to offer foods that I know my husband will like. One strategy that can work if your partner is resisting your offer is to say “ well, I’m going to go make myself some (insert food item here), and I’ll grab some for you as well. Quite often if you eat with them, they will join you. They may not eat much, or they may realize that they’re actually really hungry ( if it’s been more than a few hours) and eat.
There’s something about the act of eating that tells the brain “hey, I must not be in danger, I must be ok because I’m stopping to eat”. Call it an evolutionary response, but it’s real and it works. Also, a stable blood sugar goes miles..
Number 4: Just be there. Don’t push, but offer lots of opportunities to talk.
This one is like a delicate dance. As you get to know your partner, you start to be able to read them. You know how far you can push them to talk. You know when they need to just sit with you without talking. You can read when they are ready to start working though their emotions with you and when they’re not.
If in doubt, just be silent and wait. Your presence can be a huge comfort with no words being spoken.
Number 5: Touch them.
This one can be a bit tricky. Sometimes when people are really in fight, flight, or freeze mode, they can’t handle being touched. But sometimes touch will get you further than words. It will help calm their nervous system so they can start thinking again.
Number 6: Get eye contact
This is another one that you may need to think about before you implement it. If your partner is not used to having someone help them regulate, or eye contact has been used in a negative way in their past, this can feel threatening. Sometimes it’s better to sit beside them without eye contact because they just can’t handle it.
However, eye contact is a powerful tool that helps us connect and regulate with our partner. It can bring you out of your thoughts and emotions and put you back in the present. You don’t need to ask for sustained eye contact, but even a few seconds, as often as they can manage, can make a huge difference in reconnecting your partner’s nervous system back to you and the present.
Number 7: Become experts into your partner’s triggers and your own.
Learn how to look back at the events leading up to your partner falling apart and put together the clues as to why they have become triggered. Look for patterns. Does he/she always fall apart when a certain topic comes up? Do they always freeze up when spoken to with a certain tone of voice? Do they always run when a specific person treats them in a particular way?
Are they overtired? hungry? PMSing? stressed out? grieving? angry? anxious? What is their threshold for stress and did they just exceed it?
When you become really good at gathering clues to your own triggers and those of your partner, those clues can become an essential part of your conversation.
When you are able to say to your partner “ I think right now you’re feeling triggered because I spoke to you with that tone of voice that reminds you of your ex, and now you’re feeling …..”
Or when they are able to say to you “ I think maybe you’re hearing the voices in your head that are telling you …… because this person treated you this way and it’s reminding you of ……”
Sometimes we don’t quite know why we are feeling the way we are feeling, and it helps to have someone make connections for us. And sometimes we just need to hear our partner acknowledge what’s going on inside of us.
When you’re able to affirm you partner’s feelings and name the circumstances that have triggered them, it helps them get out of the place in their mind that’s a million miles away and start coming back to you.
Number 8: Be kind. Be patient. Be gentle.
Be kind- They may say things in their pain that hurt you. If you can remain calm and remember that they are projecting their pain and their anger it will help. This does not give your partner permission to verbally abuse you. However you are their safe place to express their feelings, and those feelings likely aren’t great at the moment.
It’s kind of like a little kid who comes home from school, and after holding it together all day, they take out their frustrations on you because you are their safe place. You know their reaction is not about you, it’s about them. If you can keep this perspective, it helps you remain calm and kind navigate through.
Be patient- It may take hours for your partner to de-escalate and be able to come back to you and be the person you know and love again. Remember who they truly are when they are not acting like themselves. It can seem scary when your partner becomes triggered because you wonder if they will ever come back to themselves, but eventually they will. Sometimes reminding them of their true self helps them as well as you.
Be Gentle- An even and soothing tone, an empathetic heart, and a soothing touch helps your partner know you are safe. If you raise your voice, express your frustrations, or dismiss their feelings, you will reinforce their belief that you are not safe. It’s kinda like handling a newborn or any other extremely vulnerable creature.
The waves do get smaller. The triggered episodes become easier to recover from. Just keep taking one day at a time and before you know it, you will be able to look back and see how far you’ve come.
I wish you all the best.