For those who are not used to the “language” of living with Borderline or a loved one who has Borderline Personality Disorder you may say, “What is a trigger”. The fact is that most people that struggle with the symptoms of BPD suffer from triggers. A “trigger” is an event or situation that intensifies the symptoms of BPD. The event can be external or internal and they can make you feel as if your BPD symptoms are going off the charts.
I personally have many triggers that can put me “over the edge” and most of them go back to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that stems from my upbringing. The biggest trigger for me deals with abandonment issues...especially when it comes to family members or close friends.
My husband has witnessed, time after time, if I place a call or a text message to a loved one or a friend and they do not respond back in what I feel is a “timely” fashion (which is immediately for me)...I will start to go off thinking that, first of all, they are ignoring me. Then the thought changes to “they don’t care for me or love me anymore”...which escalates to “something bad and terrible has happened to them”...which then turns into “they’re dead”. You are probably laughing right now at this narrative, but it is the truth.
Physically and emotionally, the changes that occur in me are immediate and very intense. My hands will start sweating and shaking, my body starts trembling, my voice gets louder, I start to hyperventilate, I then begin the exercise of calling the person, over and over and over again. Non stop! If it is my mother who I can not reach, I have been known to call the police and the hospitals. I will pace the floor, wringing my hands in despair and then the crying sets in. Many times, this turns into a full blown Panic Anxiety Attack if the person does not appear and/or call me back.
I remember one incident, when Niki was a teenager and she had just started babysitting. She was on her first babysitting job and I placed a call to check in on her. (I check in a lot!) Her cell went to her message after ringing several times, no answer. My heart skipped a beat. I called again, and then again and so forth. It escalated to a full-blown Panic Attack very quickly and my husband was trying to cope and calm me down off the ceiling. I was ready to get the Police involved and go over to the house where she was. I was shaking from head to toe!
Eventually, she called me back and explained that she had been giving the child their nightly bath and didn’t want to leave the child to answer the phone. Perfectly normal event and reasoning...but for me I was trashed, spent, in a total frenzy. This type of specific behavior plagued me for years when I was growing up, through my early marriage and even now, I still can slip and revert to this behavior if I don’t exercise my skill set that I know from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.
Another type of trigger that I experience is what is known as an internal trigger. This one comes out of seemingly nowhere. Most BPDs that have experienced child abuse or a traumatic childhood will have triggers like this. Something will happen like seeing a person who “looks like your abuser”, or listening to a song that reminds us of something negative, or a particular scent of perfume can even do it. Even the sound of someone’s voice that sounds like your abuser from the past can trigger you internally. Instead of bringing good and pleasant memories back from the past, it will cause an internal trigger of fear, dread, doom and gloom and can lead to depression.
This will sound like a weird and funny one, but my father used to use the door jams or the wall to “scratch an itch” on his back. Now, my husband does that. When he does, it can immediately “trigger” me internally to memories of my father abusing me. Just the sight of it sends me back to that time. Even certain words that someone will say, like “tasty” or “moist”, which my father used to say, can instantly trigger me back to those dark days. My husband thinks I am blowing the situation out of proportion, but it is a very real tangible, physical, raw emotion that happens spontaneously inside of me.
Triggers are very individual, so it is important for you to know and realize what triggers YOU. Then, once you have identified what your triggers are, you need to see how you can avoid your worst ones. For instance, if a movie causes a trigger, don’t watch the movie! If a place or restaurant creates triggers - stay away. Avoid what you know will trigger you as much as you can. Not all triggers can be avoided however.
The methods I use now, I learned from my DBT training mostly. Many are easy to carry out if you are home and in your safe environment. If you are at work or school, that’s another issue. Then you will need to make what my therapist calls a “soothing” bag to bring with you. I do this on long road trips, which are also a trigger for me.
We can calm ourselves down by sight, smell, audio, tactile diversions. In my “soothing bag” or at home, I have for “sight”, pictures of loved ones or scenes of a beach that engage me. For “smell”, I have my favorite lotions or perfumes or a scented oil that I use. For “tactile”, I have a piece of my blanket or a soft smooth stone that I can rub. For “audio”, I have my favorite songs on my phone to which I can listen. I have a few in particular that work to get me out of a trigger or a mood really well. I was a child of the 1970s so I like upbeat Disco and Motown music and it works every time!
Take some long deep (what I call) Yoga Breaths. Get yourself into a quiet place and try to relax your whole body and just focus in on your breathing. Try to block out all that is going on around you and just listen to your gentle breathing as you slowly release the tension from your muscles. This is a technique, I learned from taking Yoga Classes and is very helpful in a stressful trigger situation.
If you can, take a hot shower. Pay attention to the smell of the shampoo, the body wash, the conditioner. Rub yourself gently with a large fluffy towel and put scented lotion on to sooth you. Wrap up in your favorite bathrobe and just snuggle on the couch with a blanket and a cup of herbal tea. The trick is finding what works for you.
I will go to my husband and just have him hold me and wrap my blanket around me so I feel “cocooned” and safe from the situation or trigger. He simply holds me gently while talking softly to me and tells me everything is going to be okay.
Learn what can and will work for you as you deal with your personal BPD triggers. I promise that, over time, your ability to cope and recover from a trigger situation will get better and more quickly as you utilize the methods that work for you. Good luck and let us know what else works for you!