After I had been sick for a few months, something started happening. I started losing friends. I’m not talking about friends who I saw less– I’m talking about friends who stopped talking to me because I continued to be sick. One person said it was because my health issues triggered her anxiety. Not how I handled my health issues, just their existence. Another said that health angst was a trigger for her (yes, the word angst).
Trigger can be a useful word. It is meant to describe an otherwise harmless situation that brings up traumatic events. It does not mean uncomfortable, I don’t like it, or I have to think about hard things. We’re talking trauma. The stuff where we fear for our very selves. It is important for trauma survivours to be able to articulate why a seemingly harmless smell or taste or word may trigger a dissociative state. This is about flashbacks to having had a threat to basic safety. This is oh-so-different from discomfort.
We all need to be safe, but enduring relationships of any kind can never be comfortable all the time. A friend’s illness may remind us of our own fragility, but they are not causing a threat to our safety by being sick and still wanting human connection. Another friend’s injury may remind us of when a loved one in our past was injured and this can evoke anxious feelings. However uncomfortable, we do ourselves and others a disservice if we use the language of triggers to justify pulling away from those we care about. We are safe, circumstances are unpleasant, but we are safe.
I’m not immune. There are times that I want to run from all the upsetting things in the world. There are times when I’m overwhelmed and would like to cocoon in a place where I will not be reminded of my own mortality or have my responsibilities to others’ suffering tug at my sleeves. Having had a sizeable amount of trauma to deal with in my life, I have a history of having to weigh out the differences between feeling discomfort and being unsafe and a history of trying to find ways that expand rather than diminish the potential for connection. One thing has really helped.
I do a lot of yin yoga. Unlike many forms of yoga that build muscle, yin yoga focuses on the connective tissues. You hold poses for 5-10 minutes and let gravity slowly facilitate your deeper release into the pose, rather than your muscles holding you there. I love this form of yoga for the ways it helps me enter a relaxed and still place, especially when I am not strong or steady enough for a more active practice. I also love how clearly it illuminates the difference between uncomfortable and unsafe experiences in my body.
5-10 minutes in a pose can be uncomfortable. Anxieties rise as I breathe through the reflex that I should immediately alleviate discomfort. And the anxieties pass. And I am safe. Safe and better for having found my way through the tensions I habitually carry. I also have a condition where my back can pop out of place really easily. I have to take extra care to not hold many poses as long as those around me can safely hold them. I need to recognize when certain twinges signal that my ribs would pop out of place in the night were I not to stop, find neutral again, and do a few gentle counter stretches before approaching the pose again. Holding a pose as long as my fellow yogis would often not be okay for me. It could result in harm. But I do not leave the class. I take care of myself and find a way back “in.”
As usual, there is a yoga metaphor in this. What if, when uncomfortable feelings arise in the face of someone else’s suffering, we check those feelings against whether or not the situation will bring harm to us if we wait them out to their inevitable passage? What if, when someone else’s circumstances bring up pain for us, we could take care of our needs in such a way that would allow us to stay engaged and come back “in?”
Showing up can be uncomfortable, but let’s face it: someone else’s pain is not a trauma that is being inflicted on us; likewise, the existence of our pain is not inflicting trauma. Isolation can be one of the worst parts of chronic illness. Let’s build cultures and counter-cultures that lessen the inevitability of this. We will be safe. Safe and better for releasing the disconnection we inevitably carry.