Triggers and Desensitization

"Throughout the course of a day your senses and perceptions take in an enormous amount of data which they correlate and then translate into reactions. These reactions may be in the form of thoughts, words, actions, or beliefs. Every reaction an individual has is totally based on past experience or experiences that the individual's mind correlate as being as close to the current situation as possible. Reactions can change as the focus of the individual's thoughts and concerns change. As an individual recovers their abusive history, their focus is changed and subsequently their reactions are also changed.

Triggers are words, symbols, situations, items, sounds, smells, colours just about anything that the mind correlates to a negative past experience and causes a reaction based on it. As an individual's focus changes, things that once did not cause them to react, now do. However, the reverse is also true. As the individual comprehends these triggers and integrates a new meaning of them into their perceptions OF THEIR OWN CHOOSING, then what was once a trigger is no longer. It is a simple as that, however, the practicing can take some time, dedication and determination on the part of the survivor. Even triggers that are part of a programmed response for a survivor are defused under essentially the same principle.

Part of what makes dealing with triggers so difficult is in determining what the trigger is exactly. Some survivors hace a delayed reaction to some triggers. Triggers can also be cumulative in nature. For instance, a survivor encounters three distinct or dominant sounds over a two day period that exactly match the sounds experienced from the past. No reponse or even cognitive recognition may occur for the first two sounds, but at the third one, the survivor has a distinct reaction. It is difficult for the survivor to retrieve the first two sounds and may therefore not connect that the third sound was the final part of the trigger, especially if there were many other things occurring at the same instant that the third sound went off. The survivor may be looking to one of those rather than at the sound. For instance the third sound may have been a buzzer on the microwave or alarm clock, which the survivor hears on a regular basis without any negative reaction at all. But, that same buzzer in connection with two other preceding sounds made the cumulative stimuli into a trigger creating a notable reaction.

In order for a survivor to begin determining what is triggering them, they must listen to their body sensations and responses. Even at the first sound the survivor might have felt their stomach tighten, felt a brief moment of switching (as their mind was logging the sound) or felt a flash of emotion (such as anxiety or fear). It may have lasted only for a second but because the survivor did not note or recognize what their body was trying to tell them, the event passed without being dealt with....a survivor, multiple or not, never thinks says or does or believes ANYTHING without a reason. It does not matter the degree, type or longevity of the abuse survived, just any survivor. That makes up the majority of humans living on the face of the earth. If a survivor will listen to their body realizing that there IS a reason why it is doing or feeling what it is, then they can begin the process of desensitization and deprogramming. It is the first and most crucial step in both processes.

Look at how much time you, as a survivor, multiple or not, spend on your own practicing new coping skills and mechanisms or how much time you spend getting in touch with your body that your level of committment begins to show.

Take a few minutes to write beside each of the following things in this list how much time per week you spend on them. It does no good to deceive yourself or increase the true amount. It is time to get honest with yourself about your survival. Do not answer on a 'per average week' basis. How much time did you spend LAST WEEK on the following things. You may find it helpful to keep a running track from week to week so taht you are allotting the time that is required to effectively meet the responsibilites to yourself and your survival.

How Much Time Did You Spend This Week On:

1) Learning a totally new coping skill? ______________ 2) Practising a totally new coping skill? ______________ 3) Getting in touch with your body sensations through massage or other means? ______________ 4) Being consciously aware of your body signals? ______________ 5) Learning about your current coping skills? ______________ 6) Preparing, through various types of journalling or mapping, for your next therapy session? ______________ 7) Discovering why, what, and who inside your Unit/system reacted to a certain situation in a certain way? ______________ 8) Why you were feeling depressed, angry or any other feeling(s) in a specific situation, past or present? ______________ 9) Letting your various child components (if multiple) or inner child side (if non-multiple) out to do something they wanted to do? ______________ 10) Direct open-minded communication with your child components or inner child side? ______________ 11) Direct interaction with your child components or your inner child side? (The adult being with the children or adult side with the child inside, playing, singing, or doing a project TOGETHER? ______________ 12) Giving yourself and/or your components positive affirmations and/or comments? ______________ 13) Giving yourself and/or your components positive reinforcement by looking at a situation that might have been difficult or negative and looking for the good or positive? _______________

If your answer is you didn't have time, take a look for a moment at how much time you spent in a state of crisis or dysfunction. Taking a little extra time to work on the things in the list above will reduce the amount of time you spend in crisis and dysfunction...The degree to which you take responsibility and make conscious choices is the degree to which your life will by yours again.

Once you start listening to your body you will start unravelling the 'trigger mystery'. Then what? In some cases, simply recognizing what the trigger was taht caused a certain response, then discovering what past experience or experiences the trigger(s) is correlating to, will release the significance. I call it association defusing. Associating A: the trigger + B: the experience = C: realization and defusion of the trigger. This is especially true of non-programmed trigger reponses. For the majority of survivors, association with perhaps a little therapy around the recalled experience will end the significance and power of the trigger(s).

There is no set group of triggers that are universal to all or the majority of survivors, programmed or not. Triggers can also be calender dates, celestial conditions and/or major holidays. Survivors need to be especially careful that they do not set up (consciously or unconsciously) a response to a trigger because they learn that other survivors with seemingly similar histories or stories, react to that trigger. Reaction to a predisclosed trigger DOES NOT validate your memories. Nor does the way in which you react validate your memories. You must validate your own memories and experiences.

For programmed survivors (survivors who hae been purposefully and methodically conditioned to repond in a specific way to a specific trigger) the solution is a little more complex and time consuming. Trigger responses of a programmed nature have a sequential life of their own. They have a pattern and a chain of psychological and/or physiological reactions that take place. The survivor must unravel not only A: what the trigger is, B: what the experience(s) is, but also C: what the instructions were, D: who gave the instructions [if not name of individual then the perceived significance of the individual or voice] E: what were the ramifications, either realized or perceived, to not giving the proper reaction, all before the survivor can fully comprehend how it equals to F: the trigger response.

I do not recommend that a programmed survivor attempt to go through this process without the assistance of a trained and qualified therapist. It is extremely easy to lose touch with reality as a programmed survivor and in many cases, you can be actually reinforcing the programming rather than defusing or at least disarming it.

In order to totally defuse the trigger response a survivor must complete the aforementioned equational steps, however, the survivor can begin desensitization to the trigger which will disarm it temporarily while working on defusing. It is important that you do not leave a programmed trigger in the disarmed state. If a cult perpetrator wished to reactivate a programmed trigger response that has only been disarmed it is a relatively simple procedure. Just because a survivor no longer reacts to a trigger does not necessarily imply that they have discovered and are cognizant of why it triggered then in the first place.


Desensitization involves establishing a new more desirable conditioned response to a trigger. In other words, changing the old trigger to a new one. As you can see, it does not mean that the survivor no longer responds to the trigger. What it does mean is that they respond in a different and hopefully more positive and productive way of their own choosing. I caution survivors to take an active role in determining what that new response should be. Only you can determine if it is actually more positive and productive internally.

Desensitization typically takes the form of subjecting the survivor to a known trigger in a controlled, supportive environment in longer and longer periods of time until they are able to respond with the new, preestablished response. Then they are exposed to the trigger under less controlled circumstances with the survivor's normal environment while still accompanied by a support person until they are able to respond with the new response. The final step is to have the survivor experience the trigger under normal circumstances with a normal environmental setting until they can respond with the new response. The final step is to have the survivor experience the trigger under normal circumstances within a normal circumstances within a normal setting until they are able to repond with the new response. When they are capable of doing the final step, they should be able to encounter the trigger in any situation and use the new response that has been made instinctual by the above outlined process. This is the technique of many phobia experts. It can be a rather long and drawn out process depending upon the determination of the survivor to change the trigger response and how ingrained or habitual the old trigger has become.

There are no true shortcuts for successful desensitization. Many therapists and survivors skip steps here and there or stop after the first time the new response is used.

Other trigger responses, usually programmed, that could require initial desensitization are self-mutilative acts, suicidal acts, homicidal acts, reporting a person to a cult programmer or perpetrator, sexual acts, eating habits and so forth".

From the "For Survival's Sake Workbook" by Alexandra Rogers

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