Using Anchors to manage Triggers

Anchor is a term I use to describe deliberately using a trigger to help me function. Triggers get talked about lot in various communities – those of us struggling with various forms of mental illness such as eating disorders, those of us working on recovering from trauma, and those of us with multiplicity. For an overview of triggers and a range of different suggestions about managing them, please start by reading Managing Triggers. This post has stories about using anchors to help manage anxiety, trauma issues, and other ‘mental health’ problems. Information about using anchors to manage things that trigger parts for people with multiplicity is coming in a couple of days.

Some of us just drown in triggers. Our world feels like a giant pinball machine where we are constantly ricocheting back and forth, never able to be still or to direct our own course. Some of us are not this chaotic, but we find our efforts to reach goals and build a good life get randomly capsized by triggers we can’t seem to get a grip on. Sometimes this sensitivity is something we can harness instead of trying to overcome. Sometimes the best way to mental health is to find and use the strength that’s hidden in the ‘weakness’ or vulnerability that’s overwhelming you. If being less reactive to triggers isn’t helping, maybe you can use your reactivity in a useful way. Sometimes the goal isn’t to stop feeling things, it’s to feel things that are helping you build your life.

That’s where anchors come into things. An anchor is a trigger you deliberately use or cultivate to help buffer you from the effects from other triggers. It’s strong enough to overwhelm the impact other triggers have on you.

Here is one of my old anchors:

2014-01-09 16.12.01-1

Yep, it’s a bag of stones. But not just any stones, MAGIC stones! No, actually, just stones. Ahem. This started when a stressed younger part in my system stole a stone from a potted plant at our shrink’s office. It was something she could look at later, to remind herself of good conversations and a sense of acceptance that we experienced in that place when they seemed unreal and distant. It was a way of finding some Object Constancy. A few other stones were added later, such as one from the garden of the shelter we stayed at the first time we were homeless, as a reminder that we’d survived. They could be carried everywhere, tucked easily in a pocket or the bottom of a bag. They were tactile and comfortable to hold or rub with fingers. And they triggered something, they evoked a strong sense of connection to people, places, and times in my life. When I felt empty and hopeless, that sense of freefalling and disconnection, these anchors reminded me that all those things had really happened. They helped to connect me to my own life story.

I often use perfume as an anchor to literately and deliberately overwhelm my own hypersensitivity to the smell of strangers, which is a strong anxiety trigger for me. I’ve written about this before as part of ways to help manage Using Public Transport. Heightened senses can play a huge role in our sensitivity to triggers, and it’s common for people who have been traumatised or who have PTSD to find that certain senses seem to always be straining, very alert and very receptive. Instead of getting caught in the chronic hyperarousal, with all the frustration and irritability that a sense on high alert all the time can bring, why not see it as a superpower and use it to your advantage? For years the smell and proximity of strangers made public transport, crowds, shopping centres, and concerts almost impossible for me. I spent a long time trying to dull this useless, hypersensitive awareness, trying to make it normal again. I ricocheted between dissociative numbness and agonising sensitivity, flooded with sensation.

I finally started to realise that problem might also be the solution. Scents evoke memory in a powerful way. I once smelled a perfume that took me right back to my childhood, playing in the garden, so powerfully it took my breath away. I think my beloved elderly neighbour must have worn it. I have a bottle of it now myself. It’s very precious to me. When I smell it, I feel loved, and beautiful, and carefree. I started to explore scents. I bought an oil burner, essential oils, and books on how to create blends. I joined forums about fragrances, and discovered a whole world of people for whom scent is a complex ecstasy, people who visited perfume houses, who reminisced about perfumes now unavailable, who . I bought samples of strange perfumes from eBay and discovered that a heightened sense can be a source of delight. I grew fragrant plants in my garden and loved the way I could still smell them hours after brushing past them. I learned how to wear perfume as an anchor, to lift my wrist to my face when the smell of someone very afraid, when the odour of hospital cleaner, when the tang of blood overwhelmed me. Any Sensory Supports can function as anchors if you respond to them.

As a young person struggling in school, I used to carry my journal everywhere. It was one of my first, most successful Grounding Techniques, a place I could honestly express all the intensity that burned in me. I wrote myself into being, wrote myself through pain, back from the edge of self destruction, asked myselves questions and pondered the answers. Tried to make sense of my world. The actual journal itself became an anchor, a physical representation of all that writing meant to me. I could walk back into school with the weight of it in my bag. I held it to my chest like a shield. I used it as Artificial Skin when the world was unbearable.

When struggling with the overwhelming urge to self harm, one of my approaches is the Ink not Blood idea. In very bad times I have painted ink wounds on my arm and bandaged them, and that bandage has become an anchor, something to touch and hold, for fingers to worry at, a physical reminder of pain and of loving choices made when in pain. It is comforting in the way that a healing and tended wound can be comforting for some of us who struggle with self harm.

When I’ve written about managing chronic suicidal feelings, I’ve talked about things I use as talismans against death, things that keep me holding on.

They are my talismans against the dark, and they fail when the darkness is great. I hold one until its light goes out, then I put it back and take out another. The power of feeling suicidal is that it strips meaning from that which means most to us.

Some of these talismans are ideas or experiences or quotes or relationships. All of them trigger something in me, some courage, or hope, or acceptance. Some of them are physical things that could be understood as anchors. They are things that weight my soul in life, that help keep my boat here when the tide is pulling me over the edge of the world. The stub from a concert ticket. The peace lily my friend bequeathed me after she died. A poem on my wrist, or a Ray Bradbury book. A bag of stones. They are things that keep a good, healing story about my life alive for me.

Anchors are about taking your sensitivity to triggers and learning to use it, to hone it like an instrument and play beautiful music with it. They are not always the answer, they are not the only way to manage triggers, and they don’t always work. But they can be beautiful, turning what has been a curse into a blessing. Sometimes we live best when we embrace what it is to be human, to be vulnerable and moved, full of memory and feeling. If the only song triggers ever play in your life is the one of suffering, perhaps it’s time for some new music.

For more information about using triggers to support your mental health if you are multiple, go to Using Anchors to Manage Triggers – Multiplicity.

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