Saturday, October 18, 2014

Trauma & Triggers

Q:Why am I traumatized? Why do I have triggers and why does my trauma increase over the little things?

Although your mind and emotions seem complicated, and there are an infinite variety of circumstances that you face each day, your basic response to thoughts and experiences is always one of two varieties: rest-and-recover, or fight-or-flight.  

Much like a computer, the brain stores memories in a system of memory files.  These memory files contain information and data much like the files you'd find in a medical office or document files in a computer. But unlike a computer or office, our brain files contain not only data/information (ie memories), but also emotions, emotions AS they occurred at the time the memory was made, thus containing two parts, the information about the event and the feeling we had at the time of the event :

Memory file = Information + Feelings at the time

What causes rest and recover or fight or flight? Let's look at the 3 awesome parts of our brains.

Amygdala-- Creates the emotional/physical feelings of pleasure and displeasure that you have in response to your thoughts and sensations. Ie. Fight or flight, fear, joy, happiness.

Hippocampus-- Stores memories and is responsible for storing them in their proper time, place, context, and can act as a cognitive map—a neural representation of the layout of the environment.

Hypothalamus-- Produces the hormones the amygdala and hippocampus tell it to produce.
When the signals associated with a thought reach the amygdala, it relates those signals to stored memories in the hippocampus (or vice versa), and then it turns those signal/memories into the appropriate hormones released via the hypothalmus. 
When feel good sensations and happy thoughts are experienced the amygdala produces happy hormones. When unpleasant thoughts are experienced the amygdala produces unpleasant hormones.

What causes trauma?

We've all experienced trauma at one time or another. What makes a negative event traumatizing isn't so much the life-threatening nature of the event, but rather the degree of helplessness experienced and one's history of prior trauma.

If we've adequately defended ourselves, our survival brain (amygdala) doesn't need to file the signals of a trauma as an ongoing fight or flight warning signal. But if we couldn't avoid the oncoming car, discovery of a loved ones affair, or being robbed at gunpoint  -- the brain remembers that experience as life threatening.

People who've experience past trauma are also more susceptible to being re-traumatized. If you endure a relatively minor negative life event that somehow reminds you of a prior event in which you were helpless, trauma can result. Let's say you're facing a fairly safe common procedure like a tooth cavity filling. For many people, the procedure would be considered "unpleasant but bearable." But for you, this situation brings back memories of having your tonsils out when you were 10. Your parents weren't allowed in the room with you, and you briefly saw a scary, sharp instrument, and in that moment all you felt was helplessness and intense fear. (You may be conscious of these memories, or you may simply be aware of a tightening in your jaw and throat or the desire to scream when you think of the dentist touching your teeth) Because your survival brain still thinks it's in danger from that tonsillectomy, it'll store this new, similar experience as dangerous by association. Not only will you experience the cavity filling as traumatic, but you may also be even more vulnerable to trauma during any medical procedure you undergo in the future.
All of us may continue to set ourselves up to be re-traumatized until we recognize that many of our negative intrusive thoughts and sensations are, in fact, symptoms of trauma. Many traumatic situations may not cause PTSD, but these more common traumas can have the same effect, if not the intensity, as the trauma-related thoughts of full-fledged PTSD. In both PTSD and what some might call "ordinary" trauma, conscious and unconscious memories brutally intrude upon and corrupt the present moment. Not everyone suffers from PTSD, but each of us has sustained many of these smaller traumas, setting us up for being continually shoved out of the present moment into a our scary helpless past.

How often do we find ourselves ruminating about fears, resentments and worries that fill our brains with mind chatter? How often do we truly notice where we are, whom we're with, or what's actually happening--that is, experience our own precious moments?

It is said that the "present moment" is a brief period--lasting perhaps 1 to 10 seconds--that represents our conscious experience of the here and now. Only in the present moment can we fully live. If our "present" are constantly interrupted by traumatic memories, we're basically stuck in a time warp caused by those traumas. We can't fully use our brain to problem-solve, we can't fully experience our childrens laughter, we can't relate to other people, resolve old conflicts, or form new attachments. We cant fully live life or access complete logical thinking. We are in a constant state of fight or flight, leaving little space for pleasure, joy, growth or healing. Only when we feel safe can we live in the here and now and move ahead with our lives.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a change in how the brain operates which changes the nature of the mind. The amygdala and the hippocampus have even been shown to change size in patients with PTSD. Instead of approaching most days and experiences with interest and optimism, people with PTSD are preoccupied with anticipating and dealing with threats (even if it is subconscious and the person is unaware they are doing it). It's as if every problem (or opportunity, or even what appears to be a very minor change in themselves, other people, or the environment), no matter how small or large, is now a threat to their survival.

Whether you experience PTSD from a car accident, abuse, loved one dying, or betrayal of a spouse, sometimes it isn't even the accident per se that can cause it to be so traumatic, but the triggering of a memory file of earlier, unresolved trauma that transformed a trauma into a genuine catastrophe.

For example, a wife who thought her husband was doing good only to rediscover her husband cheated or lied, again ...(lame).....her brain doesn't think "Oh this time its a NEW isolated threat and trauma".....instead it accesses all past traumas and brings those emotions present. After time the trauma just continues to increase and build with each new exposed trauma.

A simple new little lie from a husband isn't just a new lie, its a new lie ALONG with all other past lies that get re-lived at once. To our brains and bodies, it FEELS like a million lies all at once.
Bottom line: If you feel like your in danger, then according to your brain---you are.
So PTSD not only can hijack our emotions, it can literally scramble our memories and can even cause us to forget. When someone with PTSD experiences a feeling or situation similar to the traumatic event, the body perceives the event as occurring again, because the memory was never properly recorded in the patients hippocampus. These unpleasant memories usually arise at the most random inconvenient ANNOYING when we're reading a book, grocery shopping, getting kids ready for school, going to church, or even being intimate with our husbands! And when our brains become flooded with traumatic emotions, we basically lose the present: we forget why we went into the bedroom, we lose track of our place in the book, we put the dang milk in the pantry and, if upsetting enough, we may even lose the mental energy to continue what we were doing or wanting to do. ("Im going to clean today! .....ope nevermind, too tired to get up, im going to continue sitting here while my kids destroy the house)
Yep, just thank your traumatic memory file for destroying any type of "normal"!

How do triggers work in relation to our trauma or PTSD?

"Trigger: to cause (an event or situation) to happen or exist./ An event that precipitates other events./ To set off; initiate."

Being triggered is an involuntary reaction to something. Like seeing a "silly Facebook" quote , happy couples at church, or having your husband lie about buying lunch at work, which triggers all the painful memories and emotions of what your husband has put you through with his addiction. Or you may be at the grocery store waiting in line when you notice a magazine with a scantily dressed woman on the cover and your mind instantly recalls all the memories and emotions from when you caught your husband looking at pornography. Or you may be balancing your checkbook when your mind suddenly jumps to the letter you received years ago from the bank about your home being foreclosed on.

Triggers can even induce thoughts to pop up seemingly at random. You may be thinking about a vacation you are planning, or something simple as putting on makeup and you find yourself bewildered by a sudden change in mood. You'd been feeling perfectly fine; why, now, do you feel so scared, tired, or so oddly dispirited? And why are you clenching your teeth so hard your jaw hurts or you feel a sudden headache coming on?

A triggered traumatic memory is at work here. These unconscious memories serve as survival mechanisms, ready to be unleashed instantly in the face of present, perceived danger. ----The clenched teeth that kept you from crying when you had a huge fight with your husband during a vacation years ago, now sets in whenever you plan a new vacation; ----The headache and worthlessness you felt after getting dolled up only to have had your husband say you looked ridiculous, now starts up every time you put on makeup; ----The spasm in your neck that started after a long-ago car accident, now occurs whenever you're stuck in traffic; ----The cramping you felt in your gut whenever your father harshly scolded you, now hits whenever your boss gives you feedback about your work performance.
All of these bodily reactions serve as warnings from your survival brain that an old danger has resurfaced. It signals: Watch out! Things are not safe. You're in danger! Right now! In these everyday circumstances, we experience a terrifying past exactly as though it were the present.

What can we do to heal our trauma??

Remember the amygdala thingie responsible for fight or flight? It has been proven that if we can get the left and right brain "online" at the same time, it will inhibit the amygdala's fight or flight response while recalling a traumatic event, thus allowing us to dispel the negative emotions that are stuck in our traumatic memory file. It can literally get the emotional fear and gunk OUT of a memory file so that when that memory is recalled again, it doesn't bring all the traumatic emotions associated with it. 

What therapies could help inhibit the amygdala's fight or flight? A few are: Somatic Experiencing, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), and Thought Field Therapy (TFT), may be particularly well equipped to escort a traumatized person from the past back to the present. 
Although perhaps an important lesson of trauma recovery is we may never quite fully recover. After all, our trauma memory files are nothing less than survival mechanisms, working in tandem with the amygdala to try to keep us alive. 

But as we make our journeys back to the present, and dispel our traumatic emotions, I think its important to remember love, patience, forgiveness, and acceptance of ourselves. We sure are amazing :)


  1. Why are you not a therapist?! Youre a great writer and I enjoyed this post! Xoxoxo

  2. Wow ! That was amazing. Will for certain share this. You put a pile of books into one understandable spot ! Thank you ! It helps me get what is happening when I have those feelings come out of no where , well from the past . And most of all maybe some tools to help lessen them .

  3. You would make an amazing addiction recovery therapist. Love you much. Thank you for all your amazing wisdom

  4. It's like an escalator. My kids were deathly afraid of that thing at first. It was new and scary and it could EAT US ALIVE! AHHHHH! But when we went on it and we didn't die, they were like, whew. And then when we went on another one, they were like, huh that's kind of fun. And after an hour of it (we were waiting in an airport for 2 hours), I could not get them off the dang thing.

    1. Haha eat is alive.

      That is an EXCELLENT analogy, I love it!!! Gotta show our brains we aren't gonna die ;)

    2. Haha eat is alive.

      That is an EXCELLENT analogy, I love it!!! Gotta show our brains we aren't gonna die ;)