Coping With Triggers
"Floating" is a word often used in association with "trancing
out," "spacing out," "being triggered," or "dissociation." Ex-cult members
describe it in several ways, including (but not limited to) feeling
disconnected, feeling as though you're watching yourself live your life, having
spells where you experience uncontrollable emotions (usually sadness or anger)
that is not appropriate to what is happening at the moment. It is also
described as having exaggerated physical sensations, having anxiety or mild
panic attacks, or having a fantasy or dream like vision, almost like a dream
that invades your waking state. Most ex-members report that these experiences
make them feel as though there is something drastically wrong with them; they
feel as though they may be going crazy. The purpose of this article is to take
the fear out of these experiences and bring about some understanding that they
are not abnormal.
Triggered experiences are common to people who have been
through a traumatic experience or prolonged periods of stress. Life in a cult is
stressful and, for some former members, extremely traumatic. In addition, cults
induce altered states of consciousness in many ways. Some cults produce
trance-induced experiences through meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues,
guided visualization, auditing and/or decreeing. Other cults produce
dissociative states when putting members through long, confrontational
("struggle") sessions. Still others overload the senses through rhythmic
drumming, music, information overload or simply through long, emotionally laden
sermons or lectures.
Periods of "floating" are usually brought on by a
"trigger." Dr. Margaret T. Singer speaks of the importance of being able to
define and label these varying experiences. To define the word "trigger," she
uses the following examples: "It triggered my memory of . . . "; "it reminds me
of . . . "; "it made me recall or re-experience memories."
What is memory?
It is equally important to understand what a memory is. A
lot of people think that memories are stored in our mind much like a videotape
of an event, to be replayed at some future time. However, memory is actually
stored in bits and pieces. Memories are a reconstruction of times past,
recalled in the present and can be influenced by new experiences and new
information received since the time the bits and pieces were stored.
What causes triggers?
Triggers for post-cult memories depend upon what group an
individual belonged to, the philosophy and practices of the group, and
individual personal experiences in the group. For former members of an Eastern
guru-based group that used incense in meditation or rituals, the smell of
incense can be a powerful trigger. For former members of a large group
awareness training that uses modern music as people are entering the room and
during exercises, hearing one of those songs on the car radio can be a powerful
trigger (please pull off the road if this happens to you!). Ex-members of
Bible-based groups can be triggered by hearing the word "amen" with the same
accent and emphasis that the leader used, or by singing hymns sung in the group
or reading scriptures that were overemphasized in the group. The loaded
language used in groups can also be a trigger.
What is "floating" or "dissociation?"
In cult experience, members dissociate in order to adapt to
the stress of cult life and to protect themselves from the group's contradictory
agenda and demand for subservience.
Dissociation is a normal mental response to anxiety. A
momentary anxiety arises when internal or external cues (triggers) set off a
memory, a related idea, or a state of feeling that has anxiety attached to it.
This brief anxiety experience alerts the mind to split off � that is, the mind
stops paying attention to the surrounding reality of the moment. The person
becomes absorbed and immersed in some other mental picture, idea or emotion.
This dissociation occurs unexpectedly and unintentionally and it is this
dissociation that can be experienced as a floating effect.
When triggered into a dissociative state after leaving a
cult, it can also trigger resentment and anger at being restrained while in the
group � having been unable to get up and leave lectures, the lack of freedom and
lack of other normal defense mechanisms.
When does it happen?
Any non-focused, monotonous, repetitive activity can
trigger the old state of dissociation because one becomes flooded by the
repetition. There are times when a trigger can arise m a normal, everyday
environment. Ex-members are most susceptible to triggers when anxious, lonely,
stressed, tired, distracted, ill or uncertain.
How to deal with triggers:
Dr. Singer emphasizes the primary need for education,
specifically psycho education. She advises ex-members to learn about trance
states, how they are induced, the results of trance states and, specifically how
your group used them. Also, learn the vocabulary used to identify and label the
normal human processes that describe triggers:
Dissociation � a sudden, temporary alteration in the normally
integrative functions of consciousness, identity or motor behavior.
Depersonalization � one's sense of one's own identity and reality
is temporarily lost � "who am l?"
Derealization � a sense of the reality of the external world is
lost � "where am I?" "Is this real?"
Secondly, learn how to protect yourself. After leaving a
highly controlled environment, you need your own space and personal time.
Learning to establish healthy personal boundaries after a cult experience takes
time and patience. You may want to purchase an answering machine and even
monitor your calls. Remember, you don't have to answer all calls, especially
calls from the group.
Ex-members benefit tremendously from ex-member support
groups. However, not all of us are fortunate enough to live in a location where
a support group meets. So you need to establish your own support system. Even
one person you can talk to who understands can be very helpful. Some ex-members
have set up a support system over the telephone or the internet.
For your own protection, resist the urge to rescue people
you left behind in the cult. Remember, they know the guilt buttons to push and
all the phobia indoctrination to use. These could cause triggers for you, even
as well prepared as you think you are.
Third, Dr. Singer recommends that you get exit counseling.
This is part of the psycho educational process. This does not have to be a
formal exit counseling.
Fourth, Dr. Singer warns ex-members about going to a
"normal" therapist, meaning one not knowledgeable about the effects of a thought
reform environment. Therapists tend to blame it on the ex-member, on their
masochism, their dependency issues, or their parents . . . "blame the victim."
And let's take the negative connotation out of the word
"victim." Yes, we were the victims of a very sophisticated system of thought
reform, of deception, of guilt and fear manipulation. Perhaps we were in a
transitional stage where we were looking for more answers for our life than
usual, or were looking for new friends, looking for spirituality, looking for
somewhere to belong. A group took our best qualities and used them for their
own benefit while taking our vulnerabilities and using them to exploit and
manipulate us. The other side of it is that we survived! It took a lot of
courage to leave the group and it takes a lot of courage to get our lives back
But, what do I do when I'm in the middle of being triggered?
First, respect your fragile moments. The intensity of the
triggered states decreases as time goes on and as you educate yourself.
Second, learn what helps you most when you are triggered.
Some suggestions Dr. Singer makes are:
divert your attention elsewhere (exercise, scrub the floor, etc.)
suppress � you don't have to talk about it or analyze it
minimize � say to yourself "I'm not going crazy. I'm just a
little anxious right now. It will pass"
It helps to learn a way to bring yourself back to reality
quickly by getting some sensory change. Some recently departed ex-members find
it helpful to wear a rubber band around their wrist and "snap" themselves when
they find themselves dissociating. Others, like myself, use the "pinch" method.
Dissociation is a habit. It has been taught to you well
over months or years in a cult. It's a tough habit to break. It takes
patience. If you want it gone yesterday, you may be experiencing one of the
other residuals of being in an intense, high-demand group where everything had
to be done yesterday. Taking time and patience with yourself is a post cult
lesson well worth the learning!