How PTSD Triggers can affect Rational Thinking.
At 49, I still sleep with a little lamp on my nightstand.
The switch for it is within arm’s reach, and my room stays lightly illuminated with an essential oil diffuser all night long. Yes, at 49, I am still afraid of the dark. It is never pitch black in my bedroom, ever.
I get triggered.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a trigger as “a stimulus that elicits a reaction. For example, an event could be a trigger for a memory of a past experience and an accompanying state of emotional arousal.”
Darkness, for me, is a massive trigger.
In September of 2019, I completed my first sprint triathlon. I posted celebratory pictures of myself crossing the finish line, doing the bike ride, and the final run. It was an amazing experience, one that I almost did not get to enjoy.
You see, I was minutes, possibly even seconds from being pulled out of the lake during the swim because I was frozen with fear.
As much as I had trained for the swim, I knew it was going to be the hardest event for me, but when I set my eyes on that lake the night before the race, I realized it was going to be harder than I thought.
Its darkness began to wreak havoc within my mind. The water was like liquid onyx, and there were lily pads at both the entry and the exit points. The swim was a quarter mile which is really nothing in a triathlon, but in that lake, I knew it was going to feel like 10 miles.
The morning of the race, I made sure to arrive early so I could take some time to meditate and try to make peace with the water. I sat at its edge as the moon’s beautiful reflection danced upon the tranquil waters. I asked God to please get me across that lake. Actually, I begged him repeatedly, as if it were a mantra I was chanting.
“Please God, please, get me across the lake. Please God, please, get me across the lake.” I said it over and over in my mind—believing with each chant it was making the request even stronger.
When it was time to enter the water, I stepped in, through the lily pads, and kept trying to breathe and stay calm. I felt the mud squish in between my toes and silently hoped it would help to ground me. I continued to repeat my newfound mantra.
My swim cap and matching pink goggles were on, and I stood waiting for the horn to blow so I could start. At the sound of the horn everyone began to swim, faces down in the water, but not me.
I just couldn’t put my face in that black water. I could not bring myself to do it. The thought of that blackness swallowing me up scared me so much. Just knowing that if I opened my eyes, despite my goggles I would only be looking into the darkness paralyzed me.
I could hear my family yelling from the banks, “Go, Mom! Go, Lyd! Go, Mom!”
Realizing I couldn’t just stay there, I started to swim the breaststroke—and I must say, a wet suit is not meant for doing the frog kick. I was exhausted in a matter of minutes from fighting the resistance of the rubber wet suit and constantly holding my head out of the water. Even worse, I was barely getting anywhere.
I stopped to tread water. I listened to faint echoes of cheers from my family, but I was petrified. I knew to get through the swim, all I needed to do was put my face in the water and swim like hell—but that trigger, that darkness, took away all my sense of reason and rationale and replaced it with fear and anxiety.
But you know what? God was listening to me that day and sent me an angel on Earth. The nicest gentleman swam up when he heard the men in the lifeboats saying that they were going to pull me from the race.
He asked me if I was okay, and I said yes. I told him to keep going so I didn’t ruin his race.
Do you know what he said to me?
“Absolutely not young lady! We don’t leave anyone behind in the water.”
And do you know what? That man saved me. Had it not been for him distracting and calming me, I would have been pulled from the lake that day.
He even sang to me as we swam. I did the backstroke with him at my side guiding me and serenading me with the hymnal, “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.” And after a long 18 minutes, we made it to the other side.
At the time, I did not put it all together because I was so overwhelmed with panic and anxiety. However after the race was done, I realized that not only did God watch over me that day, but he also sent this angel to help—an angel who also summoned my baby boy named Michael, in heaven, to guide me to shore.
My best friend calls this a God Wink, but I call it a miracle!
I believe that in times when a trigger paralyzes us or catapults us back to a traumatic event or flashback, we have a choice. We can choose to be paralyzed and activated with fear or we can tell ourselves that the trigger is temporary. We can find a distraction. We can pray. We can breathe. We can do whatever it takes to get through those moments.
If we are worried about the possibility of something triggering us, we can create scenarios to combat it beforehand, ways to excuse ourselves—figure out whatever it takes to get to the other side of the panic. Our ability to do that takes work, therapy, meditation, faith, and lots of reflection—but it can be done.
That day in the lake, the solace for me was found in the power of God. He made his presence known. I firmly believe that if we put our trust in God, and believe that He is with us at all times, we will be safe and protected. He will see us through those awful moments or send us angels to help us along.
I know that there are still triggers out there lurking, just waiting for me. They may get me at times, but I’m different now. I feel safe in my body and believe that someone bigger has got my back now.
Once I accepted that God was on my side, not playing games with my life, my entire perspective changed.
Whatever it is that you believe in, whether it’s God or a higher power, or the universe, just know there’s something bigger than us that is in charge and will care for you and love you and protect you forever.
Reach for it.
Allow its healing power to help put some of your triggers to rest because honestly, we all deserve an angel on earth, we just have to look in the right places.