The Open Window: Emotional Triggers

Insights on Creativity by Quinn MacDonald

The Cat, the Bag and Fear

Like most cats, Buster loves paper bags. He likes plastic bags, too, but those are for licking. Paper bags are for pouncing on, climbing into and creating cat-forts.

Buster is a rescue cat. He was mistreated before we got him, and although he’s been with us many years, he still fears having something grab him by the neck. He wears a collar, but that took 18 months of careful work. Despite that, he loves being a lap cat and is the most danger-loving of our cats.

After the groceries were out of the paper bag, I dropped the bag on the floor. Buster was in heaven. He crawled into it, he rattled around it, he jumped on top of it, slid down the length, and stuck his head through the handle. In the split second before it happened, I knew it had been a mistake to leave the bag handles intact. Usually, I cut them off.

Buster now had his head through the bag handle, and while there was plenty of space, he was wearing the bag, and for Buster that meant the bag had him by the neck. Old fears roared to life. Buster headed down the hall full-tilt, the bag in pursuit. I tried to grab the bag as he went by, but that made it worse; now I was lunging for him. At least in his imagination. That only added to his terror.

As he came by again, my comforting voice was lost in the bag rattling and flapping. The sliding door screen simply popped off the track as he burst through the open door and started a frantic lap around the pool. The pool towels were still outside, so I grabbed one, and when Buster made his second lap of the pool, I dropped the towel over him and scooped him up.

In a second, I had the bag off his head, and sat down with a shivering, terrified cat. With the bag gone, Buster did what Buster does when someone is holding him and saying calming things to him—he began to purr. In a few minutes his heart rate settled down and he was ready for a nap.

After the drama, I began to think about his reaction. At first I thought, “He knows that bag won’t attack him; he knows it’s not alive.” But then I realized that we all do the same thing. Not with a paper bag, but with old memories and triggers of old reactions that scare and anger us.

Given a trigger to set off anger, fear or shame, we panic, stop thinking, and try to outrun it emotionally, not making any progress, just increasing our panic. In those moments when we are caught by the neck in old fears, we are not capable of calming ourselves. All we want to do is outrun the painful emotion. Often we grab at escape behaviors until we are numb and uncaring. Smoking, drinking, eating and other wear-you-out behaviors are our pool towels.

The solution, of course, is to stop running, sit with the emotion and notice that it no longer has a hold on us. It never did. All we ever needed to do was pull that bag of fear over our heads and drop it on the floor. But calm thinking and planning is not what happens when old triggers are pushed. Panic and frantic emotions take over. At that moment, we need a calmer, cooler head that can see the bigger picture to hold us, comfort us and assure us we are safe. There is deep wisdom in our own bag of fears. As Pema Chödrön says, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”


© Quinn McDonald is a mixed media journaler and creativity coach who helps artists through transitions in their lives. Quinn’s book, Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art is published by North Light. She is working on her second book for North Light Books.

You can read more of Quinn’s blog posts here: The Open Window




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