Speaking from experience: Fear, trigger-stacking & punishment

Exactly seven days into vacation I had an anxiety attack. Honestly, I saw this coming. I usually do. Several years ago I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, one that I’ve spent most of my life dealing with. I don’t talk about it much because mental health issues are still stigmatized. And when it comes to PTSD, it seems like only the military-variety is taken seriously.

I’ve come to terms with this in recent years. Although I spent most of my life wishing I were normal and feeling angry about the traumas I was subjected to, I now see the silver lining: my victories are that much sweeter. More things than most people realize are very challenging for someone haunted by trauma. There are times when the simple act of walking down to my kitchen to grab a glass of water in the middle of the night is terrifying. A pretty shocking thought for most that know me. These days, I have a good handle on my anxiety and am pretty adept at managing my fears.

I’ve also been able to take things a step further and slowly conquer some of my more extreme fears, like my fear of heights and water. This week the hubs decided to take matters into his own hands and surprise me with an all day whitewater rafting trip. The problem was that he first told me it was a lazy river float trip.

Trigger by trigger

Once we arrived in Colorado, he filled me in on the real details of our trip. This was the start of a series of stressors that led to my anxiety attack. In animal behavioral science, we often refer to this as trigger stacking. The reason I’m writing about this here is that trigger-stacking can happen to any animal. In fact, I’m confident it happens to our own companion animals more often than we realize.

When I found out about whitewater rafting, I had mixed feelings. But the closer we got to the trip, the more I just felt scared. I created a lot of unnecessary pressure in mind about whitewater rafting, including some irrational thought patterns that aren’t worth getting into. What is relevant to this post is the fact that I ignored the very obvious signs that I wasn’t ready to go whitewater rafting. My thoughts were racing, my body tense, and I had a mini-meltdown the night before. Yet I insisted on getting up in the morning and heading out to the whitewater outfitter. When we arrived, I couldn’t hide or ignore my fear anymore. I literally froze. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move a muscle. And when my husband asked me if I was okay, I couldn’t speak.

Deconstructing the stack

Looking back, I can easily point to all the triggers that led up to my anxiety attack:

  • Lack of sleep (I don’t sleep well in general and less so in hotels)
  • Lack of adequate nutrition (elevation had zapped my appetite and I wasn’t eating enough food)
  • Catastrophizing (telling myself that bailing on the activity would be the end of the world)
  • Work stress (yep! followed me even on vacation)
  • Communication breakdowns (the inability to just say out loud “I don’t want to go”)
  • Snapping at my husband as I was getting ready that morning (both a result of my anxiety and a compounder of it)
  • The 90 minute high-speed drive through the mountains on the way there (I am also terrified of heights and get motion sickness easily)

You may notice that some of the triggers I listed seem obvious, because they chip away at very basic animal needs (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which is also applicable to humans). But others might be more difficult for someone else to identify. The thing with trigger stacking is that we all have different triggers, and what may be triggering to one isn’t triggering to another.

In discussing my anxiety attack after the fact with my husband, we both acknowledged that in life we have two entirely different experiences. Without communicating, we both have a hard time knowing what the other person is going through. We’re also really bad at guessing where the other person’s thresholds are in a given moment. As in dogs,thresholds are always changing. So, one of the best things we’ve agreed to do for our relationship is to believe the other person’s account of their experience.

Another thing we’ve decided to do in terms of future adventures is to let me go at my own pace, which means involving me in the process from the beginning. No more trying to help me by surprising me with whitewater rafting, scuba diving, bungee jumping, etc. Sure, it isn’t fun for me to admit that I’m the kind of person that needs to manage my triggers before attempting any of these cool activities. But I’ve lived too long apologizing for the ways in which trauma shaped my brain. Surprisingly, Ryan isn’t mad or annoyed that I’m “not more adventurous.” His only beef with my fear is the fear itself. He genuinely doesn’t judge me for battling them every day. He just wishes I didn’t have to.

Why am I sharing all this? Well, at one point in our conversation Ryan joked “so, you’re a lot like Hope about these things, aren’t you?” Hope is our one year old dog who has recently begun barking defensively at strangers that surprise her or give her the heebie jeebies. She’s always been timid about new things, and that’s our fault for not focusing on socializing her after we adopted her at 4-5 months. As a young puppy, she would just freeze and seemingly tolerate what was happening around her. Now that she’s older she’s started barking. And if she feels frightened enough, she’ll bark herself into a defensive frenzy.

When fear rears its ugly head

When this started happening I had to try to explain to my husband what Hope was experiencing. Most people react to this kind of behavior by shutting down the barking with harsh corrections (intimidation); some may even resort to force or pain. I had to explain to Ryan in terms he could understand why we don’t do that. If we were hiking on the side of a mountain cliff and I started freaking out – let’s say, crying and screaming – and Ryan responded by yelling at me, then I may stop crying and screaming. But I wouldn’t feel any less afraid than I did before.

It doesn’t take a history of trauma for an animal to understand that intimidation is a threat to one’s safety. Take a threatening situation (heights) and add in another threat (man yelling at me), regardless of my behavior, I’m going to feel even more overwhelmed than if I were only being threatened on one level. Ryan seemed to understand this and he’s been on board with a different approach to Hope’s reactivity.

What’s more important is that he’s starting to understand what trigger stacking can look like for our dog. Let’s say he comes home from a long day of meetings and all he wants to do is to take the dog on a leisurely walk. On arrival, he is greeted by a wiggly, playful dog, so he thinks she is up for the same. But then we he steps off our stoop, our dog loses it by barking defensively (a lay person may say “aggressively”). The kids playing in the cul de sac seem to have set her off. Angry, embarrassed and frustrated, Ryan turns back into the house where Hope calms down.

At first glance, he may think she hates kids and was triggered by the sight/sound of them in the street. But what he doesn’t realize is that the landscapers had been by earlier, then our neighbor’s dog broke through their invisible fence, then the UPS guy banged on the front door. Meanwhile, Hope had been sleeping in her crate when she was initially startled. She had already blown through the puzzles we left for her, so she had nothing to distract her from these triggers. And because they happened back to back, she got no time to decompress from either of them. They just built one on top of the other. By the time Ryan got home, she was one trigger away from “losing it.”

I’ve yet to meet a human that hasn’t had a similarly trigger-stacking kind of day in their life. We’ve all experienced this perfect storm of stressors at some point.

Of course, the obvious solution is to avoid trigger stacking altogether. But in real life, we don’t always do a good job of this (hello, whitewater rafting!). So, what should we do when shit hits the fan and we find ourselves in the middle of our own or someone else’s trigger stacking meltdown? Good question! First, let me start by telling you what NOT to do.

The problem with punishment

In the case of whitewater rafting, a bad idea would have been to suit me up and physically put me on a raft. Sound ridiculous? Well, I’ve been forced through scenarios like this in the past and seen others forced through the same (an approach called “flooding”). The results for me were heightened fears and a deepening despair brought on by the invalidation of a very real-to-my-body fear. Similarly, I think we can intensify fears in our dogs and deepen distrust by forcing them through things they are fearful of.

In the case of Hope barking defensively at kids, a bad idea would have been for Ryan to yell harshly at her, snap her leash or bop her on the nose (i.e. “correct” or punish the undesirable behavior). I’ve known pet parents, and even been one, that took this approach. Punishing Hope in these ways will not alleviate the fear and could easily plant seeds of distrust towards Ryan.

Sadly, I have a lot of experience with these ineffective approaches. My parents, like many others, thought this was the way you “deal” with undesirable behavior. It’s a very old-school approach to toughening kids up or teaching them to “act right.” Oddly enough, I still come across parents (to both humans and dogs) that sing praises for these violent methods. Sure, it may be forceful and leverage intimidation. “But it works!” they always tell me. Well, yes, it DOES work. For the time being. But what these folks fail to realize is that the suppression of behavior through force or intimidation is always temporary.

In other words, you can’t permanently change behavior without transforming the underlying emotion. When it comes to fear, you run the very real risk of intensifying it if you fail to transform it. Fear also has a knack for generalizing and becoming bigger and badder than anything even experts can tackle.

I say transform the fear because to address it is not enough. You can address fear by punishing it. Slap me in the face for crying and you’ve communicated that my crying is not acceptable. But that doesn’t give me anything positive or more functional to replace my fear with. You may have stopped the crying this time around, but I guarantee you, there will be other undesirable behavior (stemming from the underlying fear) to deal with later. Now that I know it’s not safe to cry, I’ll probably choose something even less desirable in your mind as a coping mechanism for that fear (like those times I tried running away at ages 5 and 7). And if you punished me harshly, I guarantee you just made my fears that much worse.

Speaking from experience

For example, the first time I was slapped for “throwing a tantrum” about something that genuinely terrified me, I froze. But I was born with a lot of fight in me. And it wasn’t long before my response to physical punishment, even as a small child, was to fight back. And do you know what happens when the one you’re trying to control with punishment fights back? You have to get bigger, louder, more intimidating, more forceful to get the same results. In effect, you become more abusive.

This is true when working with animals, too. I was lucky that my first dogs, the ones I subjected to these traditional training methods, responded by shutting down. But I’ve since worked with dogs that respond much like I do. They fight back. And damn well they should. If you take any animal – human or otherwise – and scare them, force them or hurt them, you are triggering some very hard-wired instincts to survive. And while survival may take the form of flight or freeze, it may also take the form of fight. That’s why some big name “trainers” get bit hard and often.

As someone who spent their childhood under attack while simultaneously being told that it was “all in your head,” I no longer have it in me to trivialize that fear factor in the animals I work with. My fear and fearful behavior kept me from a worse fate. So, I can’t blame my dog, who doesn’t know any better, for feeling fear and acting accordingly. It’s my job to mitigate her fear and in the long run, help transform it into something better. That’s not to say that I can make my dog like every little thing she is fearful of. I don’t love everything I used to be scared of. But I can certainly help her gain confidence and be at peace where she was otherwise afraid.

What should you do when shit hits the fan? You or your dog have just been trigger stacked. In terms of practical resources for behavior modification in both fearful humans and fearful dogs, there are a lot of good resources already out there (linked throughout this post & listed below). What I can offer from years of battling trauma-induced fears is anecdotal advice that works for me (and my dog, too!):

  • Validate the emotions (what you or they are feeling is real regardless of what you think about it)
  • Alleviate any pressure (check judgments at the door, remember that life isn’t perfect, and know that sometimes shit hits the fan)
  • Locate and utilize an escape route (get out of the immediately triggering situation if possible or increase distance from your triggers)
  • Employ self-soothing techniques (for me that’s things like breathing exercises, prayer, getting out in nature, and eventually, writing).
  • Take the day off (give yourself space to recover from the mental, emotional and physical jarring that comes with trigger stacking and anxiety attacks)
  • Take time to reflect (don’t beat yourself up for what’s happened, but definitely think about any takeaways that you can use to your advantage in the future)
  • Set yourself up to succeed (for me after whitewater rafting that was going SUPing on a small lake where I could have fun and also remember that I have it in me to conquer my fears)
  • Surround yourself with positive people (the kind that won’t judge you or beat you up for what’s happened but instead remind you of your worth and abilities)

Dogs are not little humans 

On a final note, I want to point out one important concept. More and more in the dog world, we are realizing that a lot of problems stem from our anthropomorphism of dogs (and animals in general). For instance, we create a terrible and misinformed dynamic when we assume our dogs misbehaved out of spite. Dogs simply don’t think like that; their emotions as far as science currently understands are far more basic.

Fear on the other hand is a very real and raw emotion felt by all animals. It’s intrinsically linked to survival. My purpose in sharing my experience with life-threatening and chronic fear is to provide insight into what it’s like to live like that. There are a lot of things that might scare our dogs that we think shouldn’t. We may think things like, “why is Fluffy freaking out? Gosh, she’s so dramatic!”

When we fail to respect their fear, however, we put our dogs in a position that few people have had the misfortune of experiencing. One where the dog is surrounded by controllers (their parents, trainers, caregivers) that ignore, punish and exacerbate those fears. I know what it’s like to live like that, surrounded by people that invalidate, punish and multiply my fears. By sharing my experience, I hope to provide understanding where animals need it most, and hopefully make it so that less dogs (and people) have to live that way.

Additional resources:

Have you ever had a trigger stacking moment? If so, what did you learn from it? Do you have a fearful dog? What has your approach been to managing his/her fear?