Playing off this metaphor, I offered the following Trauma Surviors in Love (TSIL) preparation guidelines:
1. Understand what you are embarking on (risks and rewards);
2. Practice resilience and strength-building routines;
3. Build trust. Be each other’s allies;
4. Gather safety equipment, safety protocols and First Aid Kit;
5. Gather support team(s); don’t try to be each other’s only support!
Now I will cover the fourth guideline.
4) GATHER YOUR FIRST AID KIT & SAFETY PROTOCOLS
Extreme sports are risky. Just as spelunkers and ice climbers bring emergency equipment and procedures to their adventures, the savvy Trauma Survivor in Love (TSIL) has emergency tools and routines at the ready.
It’s like having a supply of bandaids, gauze and antiseptic, and knowing CPR—because sometimes people get hurt while doing risky things.
You can use the individual and ally work you have already done (see TSIL Parts One and Two) to create your First Aid Kit and Safety Protocols. The more experience you have in these areas, the easier your safety preparation will be.
Collect Your Tools
If you have been working with the tools described in Guideline 1, gather your favorites for your personal FAK. You might want to print a list or detailed descriptions of your FAK practices. Make sure you have it handy for when you need it.
To create a joint FAK for you and your partner(s), keep your lists and descriptions next to one another in a virtual folder or on a physical corkboard.
[Or create an App! If you do, let me know and I will share it in a future newsletter.]
When your partner is overwhelmed, you can be their ally by reading your partner’s list aloud to them.
Here you can find several tools to choose from:
You might want to create a compact version of your FAK for vacations or family visits; these are often triggering situations.
Share Your Trigger Go-Tos
In Part Two, I invited you to become experts on your own and your partner’s “Trigger Go-Tos,” which will be some combination of fight, flight, freeze, appease, freeze and dissociate.
You can share this information with your partner: “When I “freeze,” I hold my breath, get very quiet and try to make myself invisible.” “When I go into my “fight” mode I clench my jaw and harden my eyes; I may start talking sarcastically.”
When we use this information to observe our partner, it’s easier to notice when they have entered their triggered body state.
You can also brainstorm antidotes to triggered states. One way to find this out is to take turns roleplaying a situation that *mildly* triggers you. Both you and your partner can compassionately observe the body cues of your automatic “fight or flight” state.
Then you can experiment with different sequences of soothing and grounding practices. Find out which combination of practices reliably helps your body recover from that mild trigger.
Then switch roles and repeat the process with the other partner. After you have identified reliable antidotes for each of you, add them to your joint FAK.
You can use your personal antidotes to interrupt vicious cycles of mutual triggering before they get out of control. It doesn’t matter which of you calls up your personal antidote first; interrupting any point of a joint vicious cycle benefits everyone involved.
Body states are contagious: when your animal body calms down, your partner’s animal body senses this, and relaxes a little, which relaxes your animal body, and so on.
In Part Two, I invited you to be a good steward of your individual well-being by discovering and practicing the self-care tools that reliably soothe your body and brain.
Safety Protocols are about team wellbeing; they are familiar routines that you and your partner(s) agree to follow when one of you is triggered.
Gather Raw Materials
I encourage partners to generate safety protocols that suit you and your relationship(s). Set aside some relaxed time (perhaps a lazy breakfast date?), and bring all your raw materials.
You probably have some effective tools at your disposal already.
Perhaps you deeply embody Access Intimacy wisdom.
Or maybe the boundaries practices from TSIL Part Two are now automatic for you.
What resources or transferable skills can you bring to your Safety Protocol project?
Generate Protocols that Work for You
You and your partner(s) will need to come up with protocols that are compatible with your specific trauma histories and temperaments.
Throughout your protocol generation process, ask yourself the following questions:
* What helped me in the past when I was triggered by my partner(s)?
* What are my typical trigger scenarios?
Here are some examples of trigger scenarios you might want to develop protocols for:
* What to do if I have a panic attack.
* How to help me when I am terrified by unfamiliar physical symptoms or pain.
(A sample protocol for this situation: “When I am convinced I cannot breathe: Please point out to me, repeatedly if necessary, that since I am able to talk, I must be getting enough air.”)
* What to do if I emotionally withdraw in a social situation.
(A sample protocol for this situation: “If I suddenly shut down, ask me if I want some attention. If I say yes, let me know when/for how long you can give me your full attention (anywhere from five to thirty minutes), and then follow through. If I say no, give me space and ask me again once we are alone.”)
* What to do if I start blaming you in the middle of sex because of a flashback.
(For survivors of sexual abuse or assault, watching the Healing Sex movie with your partner(s) can inspire your own “triggered during sex” protocols.)
Finally, you can add the group/team versions of these practices to your protocols.
Accept Your Limits
For each scenario, find direct and indirect ways to offer support. For example, if your partner is having a flashback, and you aren’t feeling up to helping them through it, have an alternate protocol ready.
Do they have a quiet, cozy space to retreat to? Is there a trusted friend they can call?
We cannot always be the support person. Learn about and accept your own–and your partner’s–limits. Since trauma healing takes years. being “on call” 24-7 for your partner is a recipe for burnout and breakup.
Remember the sandbox approach, and be honest about what you can and cannot do. Do not agree to any protocol that you cannot realistically or safely follow.
a) You can add communication prompts from models like PNDC or NVC to your protocols.
b) If you and your partner(s) already enjoy externalizing your evil twin through expressive art, try roleplaying a *non-verbal* evil twin argument (no words or physical contact allowed!)
Instead of words, use growls, grimaces, whimpers, whines, eyerolls, arm-waving, etc. This way you get to release pent up energy without anybody getting hurt. If you end up laughing, so much the better.
Well, That Just Happened
Planning ahead is one way to develop your protocols. There’s also the “well, that just happened” method.
Extreme athletes likely developed their safety protocols after experiencing mistakes, accidents and disasters. In the same way, some of your protocols will emerge out of necessity, through trial and error.
If you have never had a panic attack before, you and your partner will probably find a way to muddle through your first one.
Assume that you will run into some unexpected triggers. It’s helpful to cultivate an “accepting-what-is” attitude: “Ok, that just happened. What resources do we have to cope with this?”
Don’t waste time arguing with reality because it is “unfair” or bizarre. Just take care of it—and each other. Not resisting “what is” will save you time and energy.
One more thing: If both/all partners are triggered at the same time, you may be too far gone for protocols. The downside of contagious body states is when everyone gets caught in a vicious cycle.
When this happens, the Sandbox Approach (see TSIL Part 2) is best. Now is the time to put on your own oxygen mask.
There are 3 distinct phases of trauma recovery: 1. Safety and Stabilization; 2. Remembrance and Mourning; 3. Reconnection and Integration.
1. Safety and Stabilization (approximately 70% of the healing process)
We discussed this phase in detail in Part Two. Safety issues are going to come up when you are in the presence of your partner, and these are excellent opportunities to practice your safety and grounding tools.
This may mean going off by yourself to take care of you, or asking your partner to stick around while you do your self-care thing.
If both of you are in Phase One, where the feeling-safe-in-your-body learning curve is steep, you may often find that “together time is triggered time.”
You will need some drama-free breathing spaces in your daily life. Partners can build in accessible opportunities for separate space and privacy.
For example, you might have a standing agreement that it’s fine for one of you to go for a walk, or to another room, as needed.
If you live in close quarters, or if it is not safe/accessible for you to go for a walk, maybe you can commandeer the bathroom for a bath, sit on the porch, or put on headphones and get lost in binge TV or a book.
Such pre-arranged “outs” are essential protocols. When we feel confined or trapped, our reptile brains have a harder time calming down, so make a habit of mutually creating space.
2. Remembrance and Mourning (approximately 20% of the healing process)
This phase is about processing your specific trauma experiences. This means gently entering the tender feelings and sensations, and slowly defusing the landmines.
Although much of this delicate work should be done with your “team,” (see the fifth guideline) trauma material will inevitably arise when you are with your partner(s). Have some agreements or protocols set up in advance.
What are you both willing to do if one of you gets triggered during sex, or in the middle of making a time-sensitive or high-stakes decision?
3. Reconnection and Integration (approximately 10% of the healing process)
This phase of trauma healing is about re-learning how to be in relationship. This includes learning relational and communication skills, and practicing self-care while in the presence of others.
In this phase we experiment with negotiating boundaries, asking for what we want, and making space for our partner’s needs.
Being in Different Phases
To put your FAK/Safety Protocol creation process into context, I recommend that you and your partner(s) learn about the three phases of trauma healing.
Then self-identify which phase each of you is working on, and have a conversation where you share this information and talk about what it means to you.
What if you discover that you and your partner(s) are at different stages of trauma healing? Don’t worry, it’s not a dealbreaker, any more than partners having differing sexual desires or ages or social classes are automatic dealbreakers. It is simply useful information.
A beginning caver may face different levels of risk than a seasoned adventurer. An experienced ice climber may have more calm and confidence in themselves, and more patience (or more impatience!) with their less experienced climbing buddy.
I invite you to have a relaxed conversation about this with your partner(s), and see where it leads.
FAK/Safety Protocols are about independence and interdependence. They build on the essential foundations of individual self-care, individual trauma healing work, and practicing co-allyship with our partners.
It may sound like alot of effort, and it is. It also can be fun and satisfying. You may end up proud of your badass selves.
Relationships are audacious and complex undertakings for trauma survivors. For us, love is as perilous and beautiful as scaling a frozen waterfall.
Get out your crampons and love bravely, TSIL. I am cheering you on.
Much gratitude to Phyllis Pay, Denise Benson, and my extremely patient exes.
Nourishing Practices for Skittish Partners
*ONLINE* WORKSHOP Wednesday, May 18
11 am-1 pm Pacific Standard Time
Intimate relationships are our birthright. But the neurobiology of relational trauma (neglect, attachment trauma, abuse & oppression) can hijack our hearts & derail mutual trust.
Learn about trauma neurobiology & practice somatic & intuitive tools to soothe hypervigilance. Practice supporting one another to stay open & connected over the long haul.
Singles, couples, triads, all welcome to attend.
Limited to 8 participants
Register: firstname.lastname@example.org or (510) 594-6812