The Trauma Response
You hear about being ‘triggered’ all the time. It comes explicitly as a warning on a social media post or TV show. ‘Snowflakes’ are mocked for perceived lack of resilience and told they are ‘triggered by everything’. It describes emotional responses to different situations and the feelings this brings up – but what does it mean to be triggered?
You may react to a trigger with an emotional, physical or behavioural response. This can include:
- unexplained anger
- increased anxiety
- feelings of panic
- experiencing fear
- feelings of sadness
- feeling out of control
- Not feeling anything / numb
- heart palpitations
- teeth / fists clenched
- easily startled
- risk taking
- eating disorders
- substance misuse
But when is a trigger not a trigger?
You are human which consequently means you will have feelings. You live in a world that isn’t always happy, safe or within your control. Others will have opinions and act in a way you don’t like and disagree with. This can make you feel anxious, sad, angry – a whole array of emotions. Feeling upset, discomfort or disdain is not a trigger. Crying is not a break down. Having strong, uncomfortable, awkward feelings is part of experiencing life. These feelings can feel overwhelming at times, awful even, but if they are about moments in the present – they aren’t a trigger.
So what’s the difference?
A trigger takes you back to trauma, unannounced, at any time.
If trauma isn’t psychologically and emotionally processed, then it stays within you. It doesn’t go away. Moments feel like a life ‘timeline’ being folded back to the point when the traumatic experience happened.
Triggers can be anything that reminds you of a past trauma including:
- physical sensations
- time of day/ anniversaries
Suffering traumatic stress as a child affects the development and structure of the brain and nervous system. This increases the emotional, physical and behavioural effects of trauma. Therefore as an abandoned child you could now feel triggered by an unanswered text or a perceived blank as an adult. This could lead to you rejecting the person straight away when really they’ve just missed a text message. While any perceived form of rejection as an adult could equally trigger childhood neglect feelings, leading to further mistrust – which undoubtedly challenges current relationships. These responses have kept you going since childhood. You are hardwired to survive so will continue to repeat the actions and reactions learnt as a child, even though you are an adult. How you coped with childhood neglect would be how you cope with these neglect triggers as an adult.
Certainly knowing how your past affects your present can give deeper understanding to your behaviour and offer an opportunity for change.
How do I know if I’m responding to trauma?
How is it that some people can take criticism at work and others can’t? or they can ask for help or they seem to be able to do anything without fear of failure or anxiety?
Basically if you’ve experienced trauma you can often be bombarded with unwanted sensations and emotions. Indeed these will influence every area of your life. You may act in ways to try and cope or avoid these feelings the best you can, but having a dysregulated nervous system can nonetheless lead to unhealthy behaviour. Therefore its not only drinking or risk taking, but also excessive people pleasing, perfectionism, self doubt & blame, over sensitivity or manipulation of others for example, which can equate to trying to cope with trauma.
Thus to conclude, unprocessed trauma consequently results in feeling overwhelmed.
Triggered at any time because of a dysregulated nervous system, you will continue to feel hijacked by emotions.
But it is possible to learn how to regulate your nervous system and process your traumatic experiences.
Your past does not determine your future.
If this has left you with questions which you’d like to explore, please click on the contact page to get in touch see how I can help you.
About the author: Chris Boobier is the owner of CRB Counselling specialising in anxiety, trauma & loss. Supporting adults and adolescents, she is passionate about helping people be their authentic self through counselling.