What happens when different alters in a system get triggered and start having flashbacks at the same time?
For other people, I don’t know. Not everyone communicates with all of their alters the way I do.
For me, usually the different triggers happen by age group, time of year, type of anniversaries, and past experiences.
My adult and non-human (aka symbolic) alters tend to get triggered by environmental factors and sensory information most often. Grounding, DBT, and CBT along with meditation and breathing exercises help them a lot. So do distractions like cooking, reading, and music/TV/Videos.
My teens get triggered by interpersonal communication and human interaction – harassment/bullies, family, community members, educators. Movement, meditation, breathing, DBT, affirmations, and distractions help them feel grounded and safe. So do sensory or cognitive grounding techniques.
My child alters get triggered by life situations that remind them of feeling powerless, unsafe, in an uncertain environment, potential deprivation, and sensory memories (often tactile in our physical body). Cartoons, cuddling with a stuffed animal, coming out to experience the world in the present, and music are often necessary but not sufficient coping strategies. They help sometimes, but not enough.
All of us struggle with helping our child parts feel safe and grounded when they get triggered. They don’t always tell the rest of the system when a trigger affects one or more in the system because they’re trying to protect the rest of us. Or because of shame, fear, lack of trust in the present safe spaces, etc. prevent them from asking for help.
When one or more alters in our system gets triggered, others can get triggered too. The more alters that get triggered, the more confusing and difficult calming down and utilizing coping strategies becomes. The internal noise/sensory activity levels rise as more and more alters start to experience flashbacks and heightened anxiety or other emotions. Distinguishing past from present also becomes difficult. And increased physical pain distorts everything.
Trusting ourselves, our perspectives, our opinions, etc. when feeling emotional and confused is extremely difficult for all alters, but especially our child alters. Trying to parent ourselves and comfort/soothe the child and teen alters while also trying to choose and use coping strategies is a big challenge.
Calling a trusted resource and talking through the situation with an objective, compassionate, empathetic third party who can also offer potential coping strategies or solutions through validation of feelings and acceptance.
Friends & family are not good options for us. For one thing, our family tries to understand but their triggers and personal stuff get in the way. Plus they can’t always accept or relate to our internal struggle. It just doesn’t make sense to them because they never experienced what we experienced or have a hard time accepting our experiences as valid and real. So friends & family are not objective enough to help in this situation.
Our therapist would be able to help, but only in session or in the case of an emergency that made an off-hours call necessary. But this type of trigger often happens outside of sessions and is not problematic enough to be considered an emergency. Besides, an emergency situation means a visit to the ER could happen. We all try to avoid ER visits.
Next on the list is a phone or text crisis line. I like and often use the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) 24-hour hotline. It’s anonymous and reliable with a variety of volunteers who offer support in a variety of ways. They are NOT licensed therapists and do not offer therapy or that kind of advice. Nor do they offer easy solutions. What they do offer is validation, compassionate, objective, active listening, and feedback with coping strategies and techniques to help get through the tense moments.
My child and teen alters trust the volunteers to be objective and will accept the reassurance they offer along with coping strategies and help creating safety plans to get through triggering moments. As they calm down, the sensory overwhelm and confusion in our minds calm down. Then we all can work together to figure out triggers & grounding or coping strategies to come back to the present. From there we all can calm down.
With alter personalities, triggers come in many forms and are experienced on many levels. Our struggle comes from the sensory overload that creates “noise” and confusion to block access to our tool box of coping strategies & techniques. One trigger with multiple options in the tool box is one situation. Multiple triggers within the same alter or group of similar alters is another situation. One trigger for alters of different age groups or experiences creates its own unique situation. Same for multiple triggers for alters of different age groups or experiences.
How can a system be objective and use both emotion and logic (DBT’s WISE MIND) with so many different “voices” speaking out at the same time?
It’s something we’re working on. And maybe someday we won’t need an outside party to help find the path that calms everyone down enough to identify triggers and utilize coping strategies.
Thanks for reading.