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What I Do When I’m Triggered

What I Do When I’m Triggered
It takes at least as much effort to relieve the stress
as it did to get stressed out in the first place.

Relaxation-based techniques for stress relief get at the symptoms of the stress but not the root cause. I’ve spent a whole lot of time trying to relax without actually changing my stress and yes, sometimes I fall asleep or get some respite but the stress is right back in my face the next time I’m triggered.

Nothing wrong with yoga or deep breathing or “healing music” (just three examples of many), but we need to go deeper. Not to twist the blade against a raw nerve, but to learn what’s at the root of the stressor and really do something about it.

Stuff that stresses me out

I’m stressed by incompetence. It blows my mind when a customer care representative can’t get away from the ‘in the box’ script and actually listen to my question. You’ve been there: “Mister Bee-o,” (for some reason, my last name always disappears at this point in the call, and nine times out of ten I’m talking to someone who’s learned English just to get a job talking with me), “I understand you are dissatisfied/concerned/whatever with this situation, and I want you to know I will do my best to help you. Would you mind if I placed you on a brief hold while I research the best answer for you?”

I know they’re following their rules. Why don’t those rules include “Mister Protzmann” instead of “Mister Bill?” Why do they even need to say that? And why do they think I’m calling in the first place? Do they think I didn’t try to find the answer online, just like they are about to try to do? If I could have found the answer, I wouldn’t be calling!!!!

This sort of thing triggers me. Severely.

I’m also triggered when a loved one goes momentarily missing. If my wife and I are out shopping and she goes off to look at makeup while I go to look at shoes, I’ll get anxious if I can’t locate her even a few minutes later. The longer it takes to find her, the more worried I become.

Neither of these examples are logical, but isn’t that the nature of stress? We get triggered by stuff because something benign causes us to re-associate with the trauma and BAM! — all the bad stuff comes rushing back in from the dark inner corners where we pushed it last time.

I’m a civilian. I volunteer with military folks and Veterans, some of whom have triggers that make my trauma seem stupid-silly by comparison. I thank God every day I haven’t had to do some of the stuff my colleagues have done in combat, and I honor the sacrifices they will make for the rest of their lives as a result.

In this blog, I want to hit some common ground about options we all have when triggered — from the hardened combat Veteran to the humble piano player — that can actually help get to the root of the stress and begin to transform it.

How I respond to stressors

To calm me down, I use relaxation techniques. Yoga, deep breathing and listening to some kinds of music have this effect on me. Once I’m somewhat back in control (eg no one else is going to get hurt) I start to focus on the root cause. If I can’t get to the root cause, I get help. But if I can get to the root cause, which is most of the time these days, I will take action to transform the stress into some productive purpose.
For example, I write this blog to suggest thoughtful and novel ways we can deal with stressful world events. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I’m just as tweaked as you are by government incompetence, corrupt political leaders, post-traumatic stress’ impact on the military and Veteran community, military suicide, child and substance abuse, poverty and homelessness, the economy…all the stuff that ought to get our attention. Rather than adding to the general noisy rant about such things, I choose to suggest alternatives. This helps me to stay focused on the possibility for a positive change, even though one blog may not make much of a difference in the giant world wide web of Internet blather.
As you know, I also use music to get at the hard-to-reach internal places where my stress hides.

How I responded to feeling suicidal

I’ve felt suicidal many times in my life, but the worst of all was when, alone and almost broke from the combination of my second divorce, defending my daughter in court from sexual abuse by her stepfather, and paying a mortgage on my home plus rent on another home I literally found myself without any hope. Since there’s a history in my family of depression and suicide, I realized I’d better be careful to not let my demons take over my asylum, but it was a losing battle.
One evening as I was sitting in my favorite chair just overwhelmed with depressing thoughts of ending my life and the hopelessness of what it could be if I didn’t, I remembered a piece of music that meant a lot to me about a dozen years before.
At that time I was living at a friend’s home (couldn’t afford rent) and trying to get back on my feet after divorce #1 and its associated bankruptcy. The place had a clock radio in the bedroom and my favorite wake-up was a local public radio station that played Classical music. This particular morning, the piano music that was playing sounded very New Age to me (think George Winston before he started recording Gulf Coast Blues). I was captivated — the music was actually much better than George Winston — and curious what New Age piano music was doing on a Classical radio station, but more than that, I was completely taken in to the music itself. The experience was so powerful that I knew it would be important for me to find out what the music was and learn to play it. Several years later, I did both. You can hear the same music I heard that morning here.
Flash forward back to me, suicidal in the chair.
I vowed to myself to stay in the chair and not take any action until whatever I was experiencing had had its way with me. I decided it was time to listen again to “my” music and I got my iPod and headphones and started listening. After a few times through the piece, I took off the headphones and just sat there with the music in my head — in my whole body, really. Something was happening to connect me with a very deep unresolved trauma that I couldn’t identify specifically, but I was completely aware of the feelings the trauma had caused in a way far beyond normal sensation.
(I could explain the “how” and “why” (physiology) of that inner listening to you, but it would be boring and isn’t relevant right now. It’s enough for you to know that the music got into me more deeply than anything I’d ever experienced.)
I felt like, for the entire time I had been listening to and staying “in” the music without it playing, something very basic to my being was waking up inside me and wanting to be noticed. The “noticing” began to well up inside me, leaving me in tears I couldn’t control. I stayed put and let it happen. When I couldn’t cry any longer, I was so emotionally and mentally exhausted…but instead of getting up and finding something to do to distract me (one of my avoidance habits) I continued to stay put to see what else would happen.
What did happen was that I began to realize quite clearly — and maybe for the first time that really mattered — that I had a choice. I could choose to let this trauma — whatever it was — keep getting the best of me, or I could man up and deal with the issues in my life, hopefully making better choices than I’d made in the past. I know that sounds trite, but when you’re suicidal, it’s actually huge. It was pivotal for me. I chose to man up.
I didn’t really know what the underlying traumatic experience was — I’m still wrestling with that — but choosing to accept it as a part of me, maybe a fundamentally unavoidable part of who I really am, was huge. At that moment, my serious consideration of killing myself changed, too. I had a feeling of relief. There was no clear direction of what to do, but it was enough to have really won the battle with depression and suicide.
By accepting the unknown trauma on such a deep level, I’d finally begun the heavy lifting of unwinding from a lifetime of pushing it aside. Realizations began to come faster: I’d work to avoid feeling anything. I’d choose to work on tasks that I could complete quicker instead of long-term efforts just to have a feeling of immediate gratification in my work. If I was feeling triggered, I’d call Customer Service to complain about something just to have a good argument.

These kinds of realizations continue today, almost ten years after the night I sat in that chair and stuck with it until I found a way to accept the traumatized part of my self.

So all that happened…How am I today?

I’m still getting at the core of the trauma and I still get triggered. I still get help when I need it. The difference now is that, since I’ve found some compassion for the traumatized part of myself, I practice using that compassion. I don’t yell at customer service folks who call me “Mister Bee-o.” I don’t react an passionately towards incompetence. I get my news from Comedy Central instead of talk radio. I live a more joy-filled life.

I volunteer in causes about which I’m passionate and in which my skills can make a positive difference. I advocate strongly for what I believe, and listen more strongly when others express different beliefs. I’m in the game and watching the game at the same time.

C’mon Bill — your stuff is nothing compared to mine!

Yes, my friend, that’s true. Whatever my trauma might be, it’s not yours. I know about the trauma many of my friends and colleagues face and how it has changed their lives in awful ways, but I also know that real work on the acceptance of that trauma — not just painting over the symptoms but getting back to the basic traumatic moment itself with huge self-compassion and complete awareness — is possible. It’s also transformative. Deep authentic acceptance and self-compassion also transforms trauma triggers into calls to action.
When I’m triggered these days, I give back. I perform, or speak or teach or just listen with authentic empathy. I write. I look for ways to resolve conflict that make the one blocking my path into a hero for opening to a solution that serves both of us.
I’m convinced that, the deeper your trauma goes, the bigger the opportunity for you that lies within it. That opportunity could lead you to be a heroic inspiration to your brothers and sisters be they military, homeless or addicted. It could lead you to teach others how to transform themselves, whether as a minister, social worker, therapist, shaman or professor. You could become a leader in government, business, research or parenting.
I believe you can do this, and I hope you will choose to do so: when the trigger hits you, hold on to it until the trauma changes you. More than even before, the world needs you as a victor in that inner battle. Your friends, family, brothers, sisters, colleagues and fellow human beings want you transformed, too, and we will love you unconditionally while you traverse that dark inner place where everyone must go to find their power and their peace.
Joseph Campbell, who studied the mythology of humankind from pre-history through Star Wars, calls this process “the hero’s journey.” Trauma calls us to this noble and necessary part of our lives, this “crossing a chasm walking barefoot on the edge of a sword.” Our trials are lonely, but transformation only happens during that crossing.
You can do this. We can do this. We must do this. Our triggers remind us that we have a choice: we can die here on this cliff, or die trying to cross the chasm.
Take off your shoes and bring it on.


Ready for a deeper dive? The Music Care Quest, a fully-mentored online active-learning experience will immerse you in practical ways to meet life’s challenges with skills you may not realize you already have. It’s not for everybody, but you are that unique individual who really resonates with with the power of music and wants to learn to wield it with skill, give it a try. The landing page is here.