The nature and wisdom of triggers in the shamanic narrative, and guidance on how to release them.

Yes, I did blog about the shamanic narrative of Tigger’s bounce before. This topic is a bit different from that one =)

To that end, I wasn’t sure if this post was more of a Life Betwixt flavor, or What It Is Wednesday. Really, it’s kind of both: What It Is Betwixt?

Last week in What It Is Wednesday I talked about teasing out divinity in the middle of a shit storm, which led me to mention the word “trigger.” Recall my baptism by fire in the Internetz world came in the form of co-leading a national non-profit for adult survivors of childhood sexual assault, called The Saferoom Project. That was almost 20 years ago. While I’m not involved with the group anymore, I learned lifelong lessons there that have deeply informed my soul work.

What’s a Trigger?

In the survivor community, triggers are events that occur as a response to distress in the present that generate a dissociative regression back to a similar originating trauma from the past. Triggers may come in the form of an event, an interpersonal dynamic, an illness, a word, or the repetition of a traumatic event. They are a component of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and are very important to recognize as such, as part of healing trauma. When we know our triggers, we can seek ways to manage, if not overcome them.

In the shamanic narrative–which is to say, the healing story–anytime we’re talking about PTSD, we’re talking about soul loss. As the soul is made up of infinite and evolving aspects that come and go, this travel is one way our consciousness expands. It’s a way that we heal, learn, grow, and engage with All Things. When soul parts leave as the result of trauma, a dynamic is set up in which the soul part can’t or won’t return to the earthly consciousness. When this distancing occurs, vital aspects of the earthly consciousness become compromised–skills, memories, beliefs, wellness–and stay that way until soul retrieval occurs.

Sussing out triggers is part of the mindfulness work that comes with soul retrieval. Indeed, merely returning the soul part(s) is vital to healing. However, soul retrieval doesn’t necessarily relieve emotional, physical, or psychological symptoms. These require awareness of what triggers unpleasant states and skills for how to cope with, if not change them.

Likewise, merely returning a soul part doesn’t guarantee it will stay. Doing the messy work of mindfulness and life assessment along with soul retrieval, though, does.

How Shamans Work with Triggers

There are many ways to work with triggers, and all of them have in common connecting with the originating feelings and giving them release. Some folks take a very aggressive stance with that, though I’ve never found it necessary (or helpful).

Photo by David Goehring, "Heart Line," Intentional Insights, Soul Intent Arts, Kelley harrellAs an empath, I connect with aspects of self and  body very easily, and I easily access my imagination. As an animist and shaman, I recognize that triggers are their own life force, and that I can communicate with them. For me, that process is something along the following: When triggered, a sort of portal opens, which connects me directly with the first time I felt those feelings. This expanse of space allows me to understand some original nature of the feeling, while still remaining connected to how the feeling manifests in the current trigger/event. I can stand in the connection between them and bring in my skills as a shaman to work with the entire expanse at once.

With that first acquaintance healing must begin. Emphasizing only the present disturbance serves merely to patch over the current feelings, leaving the originating feelings to still be dealt with the next time the trigger happens. Whereas, addressing the source feeling gives the opportunity to release the trigger, for good. Along this progression is the approach to working with triggers that I describe, below.

Employing wellbeing skills in the time of crisis is a practice in mindfulness of the most challenging variety. In the middle of the flood isn’t the time to begin building a boat. For this reason, learn supportive mindfulness skills when life is calm. Practice them with every day challenges, so that when the big ones come, the skills are reflexes. Not sure what mindfulness skills effectively address triggers? Let’s talk.

The Setup

What I suggest below for working with triggers in a shamanic way is what works for me. Ultimately, we must all do what works for each of us. Consider this discussion a model from which to base an approach that will work for you. The key components of that approach are identifying the trigger, feeling it all the way back to its first manifestation, giving it expression in the present, and through doing so alleviating it.

The first step is remembering to use crisis skills. It sounds silly to suggest that we remember to use what we know. However, the force of dissociation is arresting. Its ability to regress us to an emotional state less capable than our present one leaves us stunned, and we forget what we know. When we remember that we have other, more mature options to respond, we can act on them. Thus, part of developing a mindful approach to dealing with triggers is setting the intention to remember our options.

Isolate the feeling, or feelings. Feelings may not come with a name or context. In fact, when dealing with repressed feelings, they often don’t have a clear-cut context, and they don’t have to. Feeling them is enough. As uncomfortable as they may be to feel, within lies release.

Come into as clear an understanding of the feeling as possible. If possible, note a sense of age that it was felt, atmosphere, any memories or relationships connected to it. Whether those details present, sit with the feeling. Give it the space to be, now.

Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place. Rumi - Photo by S. K Harrell, Soul Intent ArtsNext, feel the feeling(s) fully, with the intention of feeling them all the way back to their source. If holding that intention leads deeper into the body, a specific system or organ, a memory, an event, an inexplicable time or place, go there. Let the feeling guide to point of origin.

Greet whatever’s there as if it’s a four-year-old child. Because most of the time, it is, or is at least at the developmental level of a young child. One reason feelings become stuck is because trauma happens before we’ve developmentally learned the skills to cope with it. In some cases, it happens even before we’ve learned to speak or walk. For those pre-verbal places, those feelings won’t be expressed until something in the present reminds us that they’re there.

For traumas that happened recently and are within our conscious memory, it’s still appropriate to let them be and express themselves as the raw and regressed states that they are. Again, this may convey very child-like, in guttural sounds, curious gestures, or through needs like sitting in complete darkness, feeling safe wrapped up in a blanket. Allow the creature comforts that cause no harm.

Animistically speaking, just drop the intellectualism and let imagination go with it. Let the body be in control. Step out of the way of how the feeling and body need to express themselves.

Tell the source feeling what most soothes. Ultimately, we all want to be heard, and that’s often enough to release stuck feelings. It may take more than one sitting of letting feelings express themselves, though allowing them to do so as they need is key. What’s important is allowing expression until the sting minimizes. This indicator more than any other says the work is being done.

Also helpful is providing comfort. The sorts of things I say to my feelings are, “I’m here for you. I couldn’t be here for you the first time. I couldn’t give you what you wanted, and neither could the other people in my life. I can, now.” “You’re safe with me.” “You’re not alone.” “I’m older now, I have the skills to help you.” “You can tell me what’s going on. I will listen.”

Breathing It Through

As this interplay of awareness evolves, bring the breath into the steps above. Inhale more deeply than the normal breath, allowing the belly and ribs to fully fill (front and back), all the while focusing intention on the feeling’s source. For a suspended second, hold self in that original space, then forcefully exhale the breath away, sweeping the feeling along with it. Intention and awareness make the connection between the past and the present possible. The breath is the connection. 

Breathe thoroughly, keeping awareness on the originating feeling, sensing its connection to the present trigger, as many times as it takes to feel release, however slight. Repeating this intentional breathing process brings the focus more to the present, with the awareness that the past feelings have dissipated. When the pull of those feelings is lessened or released, empowerment to deal with dynamics in the present can be realized. Being present won’t make everything perfect or suddenly all better, though it will give a sense of greater control over the self in coping with the present.

Walking the Walk

I learned a long time ago I can’t cry and focus healing breath at the same time. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for tears. Crying has its own beneficial qualities, though not when they are instead of employing skills that can more deeply address distress. There is a point along the path of dealing with triggers that it’s appropriate to ask self if remaining focused on emotional processing is movement. The times that it isn’t, the times that it stands in the way of being present to a new way of being, come back to intentional breathwork. This kind of breath clears all in its path. In this way, the breath embodies the feeling, past and present. It brings it from amorphous, liminal space and into the body, readily felt and actualized. Exhaling it out with intention allows it to be carried from the cells, psyche, and soul.

It may take time. It may take repeated sessions of sitting with feelings that seem to dissipate then rear again. This back and forth pattern isn’t failure or  an indication that healing isn’t working. Such is the paintball-splatter path of grief. It has no specific direction, navigation, or frequency. Just be available when triggers arise, to let the feelings release.

Even when there’s no obvious trigger in a present trauma, make a point to feel back through to the first time the feeling manifest, and begin the healing there.

Honestly, when I phrase the intention that way, I always find a time that I had those feelings before and they went unaddressed. There hasn’t been an instance that I was distressed in the present that, upon inspection, I didn’t find a previous experience of that terror. While not a trigger, reaching back to those first feelings to be certain they are given a voice instills that new triggers aren’t created.

This approach to coping with what life brings is a vital part of the role of shaman. Accepting this role doesn’t mean that life stops dealing hard blows. It doesn’t mean life won’t be stressful, even traumatic. It doesn’t make one immune to the impact of life. Rather, it serves as a call to use all the skills available to stay as well as possible, despite the impact of life. It gives a focal point for the suffering.

Remember that feelings  are alive, embodied timeless beings. We can engage them to relieve them. When we trace their source to our present triggers, we gain the opportunity to heal the past and develop better skills for managing trauma in the present.

As always, everything you do to show up better in your own life leave us all better, period.


Thank you.