The Traumatized Brain: Why Trauma Causes Triggers
Allison Hutson | Counseling I Christian Counseling Associates | Stewart's Gift I Plano, TX I McKinney, TX | Grapevine, TX
Life happens to all of us. Throughout scripture we see where we are guaranteed to face trials, tribulations, and persecutions. Knowing this only serves to normalize our experiences, it does not prepare us for unexpected life experiences and it does not prevent us from the impact of trauma. What exactly is trauma? What does it mean to be “triggered”? Why does my life seem to be out of control, can this really be from my childhood or is that just psychology myths? Is there hope to live life without trauma triggers? These are all questions I want to explore in this blog. As a complex trauma therapist, I work with people who have experienced traumatic events, often many years prior to seeking help, who speak hopelessness and who have many coping mechanisms, anxiety, depression, low self-worth, helplessness, identity confusion, relationship issues, suicidality, emotional struggles, and much more.
What exactly is trauma?
When we think of trauma we think of massive traumas known as “big T” traumas such as catastrophic events, childhood abuse, sexual assault, war veterans, and natural disasters. This is trauma, without a doubt. But, what if I told you anything can be considered a trauma? What if I told you the kid who cut in line in front of you in first grade every day traumatized your brain? What if I told you being laughed at one time only and experiencing embarrassment as a result in sixth grade traumatized your brain? What if I told you losing a sentimental item from a loved one traumatized your brain? Anything is fair game to be considered trauma. Trauma can be single incident or prolonged and recurrent. Trauma is complicated to say the least. Here are some statistics just to help you understand the prevalence of trauma in our society:
Your life story is written by your experiences in life. Your story is important because it shapes your identity, it explains your behaviors, it is the cause for your struggles and your strengths. This is how the human brain stores trauma:
So why is trauma so damning to humans? Trauma is a neurological issue that impacts the mind and body. Here is how it works: there is a traumatic event that happens in life that is the catalyst for intense and rapid emotions. This is the key to trauma: it creates an intense and rapid emotional response. It’s important to know that when trauma happens your brain goes into survival mode because you were created to be a survivor! No different than your body has defenses again physical pain or injury, such as shock, your brain is also created to have defenses against intense emotional disturbances. Simultaneously your mind and body will experience the trauma with emotions and body sensations. Perhaps it is intense fear, sadness, confusion, or helplessness. Your body then responds accordingly: rapid heart rate, tense jaw, clinched fists, nervous stomach, tingling hands, legs, feet, or face… the body’s sensational somatic responses are limitless. The mind-body connection in trauma is simply explained as a nervous system response.
Look at the nervous system of the body and consider the brain the control center, and see how the nervous system branches from the brain down to all areas of the body. Emotions are processed in the brain. When rapid and intense emotions are processed in the brain, survival mode sends signals to the rest of the body resulting in simultaneous mind-body experiences.
The neurological aspect of trauma now makes sense! But why does trauma impact us and affect us for years or even decades after the nervous system response has subsided? This has to do with the complexity of the human brain. The one differentiation or critical distinction between the human brain and other complex brains (such as chimpanzees) is the ability to reason. Humans are meaning makers whether we intend to make meaning or not, our brain is created in the image of a deeply cognitive and sentimental and meaning-making God. So here we are living life, something traumatic happens, we have intense and rapid emotions which signals body sensations and our brain next creates meaning of the event. If one is not intentional to practice positive psychology and look for the silver lining then it seems the brain defaults to a negative meaning from the event. It makes sense, the event is negative, the emotions are unpleasant, and the body sensations are disturbing so naturally the meaning we takeaway is a negative belief (also called a negative cognition). Here is an example of what this may look like in real life:
EVENT: parent abandons a child
EMOTIONS: confusion, helplessness, sadness, rejection, anger, hurt, guilt, shame, disappointment
BODY SENSATIONS: tight throat, rapid heart rate, heavy legs, stomach pain
NEGATIVE COGNITION/BELIEF: I am insignificant
What does it mean to be “triggered”?
Being triggered is a term most are familiar within pop culture, but what does this term actually mean as it relates to traumatic experience? Here is the chart again, just to make this more easily understood:
Perhaps this child who was abandoned by their parent is now an adult. They are at work when something happens that generates similar emotions or body sensations or perhaps is an outright abandonment. This adult’s mind and body will become triggered causing the person to feel insignificant, even if this is not what anyone else at work actually feels or thinks about this wounded adult. When a person has a traumatic memory stored in their mind they carry the meaning with them until it is confronted and worked through. The longer this negative belief is carried the more deeply rooted it becomes. I often explain negative beliefs like making coffee. If I place “I am insignificant” into the filter and pour innocent life experiences over this belief, the product that results is not the same as it began, no different than pure water poured and filtered over coffee grounds results in a different product than the water it started as. When emotions and body sensations are experienced in life after the traumatic event has subsided and results in negative beliefs and undesired behaviors is termed trauma trigger. Humans make choices, enter relationships, and behave through their belief filters.
The more traumatic events you have,
the more negative beliefs you have,
the more dysfunctional life becomes.
Why does my life seem to be out of control, can this really be from my childhood or is that just psychology myths?
While you can not link or blame everything you do on your childhood or past experiences, it is likely that life is a struggle for you because of unresolved negative cognitions, or intense emotional experiences. Human behavior is rarely a true mystery. When events in life create an intense and rapid emotional response in the brain this is visible on brain scans. When a person is later triggered by this trauma the brain “malfunctions” temporarily. Intense emotions light up the emotion center of the brain (the amygdala) and literally dims or disables the thinking/rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). This is why people who are triggered display heightened and often irrational emotional displays in conjunction with undesired behaviors that negatively affect their life and relationships. Working with a trauma therapist will help you to identify these traumatic and significant events in your life in a way that will help you grow from them to develop positive beliefs that will have victory over the negative beliefs. Healing from trauma is life changing helping you function better in life and helping you have healthier relationships with others. You can not erase or undo your life experiences, but you can certainly grow from them in a way that will help you be productive in your adulthood.
Is there hope to live life without trauma triggers?
YES! YES! YES! There are many options here to live life without trauma triggers, but without a doubt this is possible! Trauma therapy is not a one-size fits all, but there are researched and proven ways to overcome your life story. The is help, hope, and healing when you’re ready!
Proverbs 23:18 “Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.”