Updated: Feb 9, 2019
If you have experienced trauma, it is possible that this article will trigger you. If this happens, take care of yourself by: stop reading it, connect with someone supportive, pause or take breaks, or use coping skills.
As awareness about trauma and trauma triggers grows, you may be left with confusion about what exactly trauma is and how to identify a trigger. Perhaps you have questions about if you have experienced trauma and how to know if you have. I hope this article will help to clarify confusion and organize disorientation around this topic.
Most simply, trauma is the result of experiencing a survival response and not being able to complete the response or escape from the threat successfully. As mammals, we have survival responses that have been hand-crafted over centuries of evolution to keep us alive. These responses reside in the instinctive reptilian part of our brain and are not consciously made decisions. This means that when your system perceives threat, your survival instinct will automatically make a choice about how to keep you safe. There are four main survival strategies your reptilian brain will choose from:
#1. Hyper-socialization: the survival strategy of connecting with others, those who you perceive can protect you, or socializing with the threat in an attempt to de-escalate them.
#2. Fight: your brain will assess whether or not this is a threat that you could physically overcome. If so, your aggression response will turn on.
#3. Flight: your brain will determine that the best way to survive the threat is to run away from it and get as far as possible.
#4. Freeze: this response often comes online after the other responses have been tested and failed. This response is the "play dead" response - your body freezes and you are able to dissociate from your body in order to experience less pain.
In the wild, these encounters were more straightforward. We would have an interaction with a threat and if we survived, we would shake out the excess energy and continue on with our day in a regulated nervous system. In our modern world, we often have difficulty emerging out of our survival responses and are unable to re-regulate our nervous systems back to a healthy, relaxed, and responsive state.
Trauma is an experience of real or perceived threat to your life of another person's life that you either were not able to escape successfully or were not able to fully process once you were safe again. A trigger is anything that your brain associates with the original threat. A trigger could arise as any of the following (and more):
a tone of voice
a time of day/amount of light/particular lighting
a held attitude of another person
a type of inter-personal interaction
being in a certain physical gesture or position
a particular location
witnessing certain interactions or stories
So, how do you recognize when you are experiencing a trigger? You can look for physiological signs of fight, flight, hyper-socialization, or freeze. Are your hands getting sweaty, do you feel a rise of anger (the boundary-setting emotion), are you cold and still, do you find yourself going into people-pleasing? Any of these are likely signs that something has triggered you or you are perceiving current threat.
I want to be clear that perceiving and managing current threat is not the problem. It is healthy to be aware of your surroundings and know how to keep yourself safe. The challenge arises when your body is in a dis-regulated nervous system state and your alarm bells go off when there is no current threat present. When you have a big survival reaction when you are actually safe, you may be experiencing trauma.
So, what do you do if you have experienced trauma? Trauma responses can be healed and lessened by engaging in trauma-resolution work. The goal of trauma-resolution work is to help your body come back to baseline, so that you are fully available to assess and respond to threat in the present moment. This work can be more complex and difficult if you have experienced complex trauma, which is the experience of not being able to escape perceived threat for a prolonged period of time. Complex trauma has different levels and can include:
neglectful or abusive childhood experiences from parents, teachers, or other adults who you were frequently with
neglectful or abusive friendships or romantic relationships
hateful or stressful responses from family, coworkers, or community members concerning your identity
being asked to lie about who you are, give your identity up, or betray yourself in order to belong
living in a society where your group does not receive basic human rights, access to housing, healthcare, community, or spiritual freedom
colonization - the forced assimilation of a certain group of people into the dominant group, often enforced with violence and threat of violence
While there are different experiences of trauma and these experiences can be layered, it is not helpful to think of "hierarchies of trauma" as apply to yourself. Denying your own pain and traumatic experiences, because you understand that others may have experienced more difficult or sustained trauma does not help anyone. It is important that you have space to heal and resolve trauma while working toward a world where everyone has this opportunity regardless of who they are, where they live, and what they have been through.
So why go through the process of resolving trauma? Who wants to talk about it, feel through it, spend any more time on it anyway? Committing to a process of trauma resolution with a trauma-informed practitioner can help bring you into a healthier, more vital, and joyful life. Here are some of the benefits you may experience:
healthy and nourishing interpersonal relationships
a relaxed nervous system
greater and more frequent experiences of joy and freedom
a sense of empowerment
a greater sense of felt safety in your life
less anxiety and panic attacks
greater participation in what brings you alive and makes you happy
sustainable involvement in causes and activities that are meaningful to you
I hope this has helped you gain greater clarity and deepened self-compassion for yourself and others. For more information about trauma and triggers, check out:
Rachael Maddox - Trauma Resolution Practitioner
Somatic Experiencing - Practice of Trauma Resolution Based on Biological Responses
Kimberly Ann Johnson - Trauma Resolution Practitioner and Birth-Worker
Monica T. Williams, Ph.D.: Article on the Link Between Racism and PTSD
Elizabeth Menze: Article on Sexism and PTSD
Payam Ghassemlou, MFT, Ph.D.: Article on LGBT Suicide and the Trauma of Growing up Gay
If you are interested in booking a consultation to see if I could be the right therapist for you, click here.