Have you ever experienced trauma? Whether it was a one-time event or a long-term situation, trauma leaves a lasting impact on your well-being. Even when the traumatic event ends, its effects can still linger in the form of triggers. Triggers can be anything from a sound, a smell, or even a person who reminds you of the trauma and causes you to relive it. But sometimes, these triggers go unnoticed, making you wonder – why do I feel like this? In this article, we will explain why triggers happen, some signs you’ve been triggered, and most importantly, how to heal.
The bottom-up process
Have you ever wondered how your brain developed? If you have, it’s time you find out, because it’s one of the many different ways we’re trying to understand triggers and trauma. In her post for Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Dr. Monica Johnson describes something called the triune brain model.
Far in the past, when we were still in Flinstone times and humans were cavemen, we only needed basic responses to survive. That’s when we relied on our “reptilian”, most primitive part of the brain. This part is responsible for the automatic, quick responses that helped us survive by promptly responding to danger. As we evolved and started living in groups, emotions became as important as survival. That’s when the mammalian brain developed to understand and respond to the emotions of others. And as societies became more complex, the neocortex emerged to help with logical thinking and decision making. These three parts of the brain – reptilian, mammalian and neocortex – work together in the “bottom-up trauma process” to help us process traumatic events.
The hijacked brain
According to Dr. Johnson, triggers happen because your brain becomes hypersensitive to stimuli. When a traumatic event occurs, the stimulus travels through these three parts of the brain. For example, if you were verbally abused by someone, your reptilian brain was the first to respond. Your heart was racing, breathing quickened, and you were on high alert. Next, your mammalian brain kicked in and you started to feel emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness. Finally, the neocortex attempted to make sense of what just happened, trying to understand why this event occurred.
Today, triggers, like loud sounds, can cause you to relive the traumatic event and feel like they’re going through the process again. Even if these sounds are different from someone yelling at you, your brain makes you still feel unsafe.
But many times, those triggers go unnoticed. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology showed that people may often be totally unaware of their triggers. You may feel that something’s not right, but you can’t figure out what it is. Luckily, psychologists have identified some signs that can help you recognize you’re being triggered.
Signs you’ve been triggered
In her article for The Catalyst Center, licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Karmen Thulin explains that there are a few domains that we frequently see in trauma triggers. Let’s explore how you can recognize the triggers in each of these areas.
One of the signs that your trauma is triggered is anger or irritability. Dr. Thulin says that the key way to identify this is through an overreaction to certain situations. You may get irrationally angry over small, seemingly insignificant things, and wonder why you’re so angry. You may also experience sensory sensitivity, where you are easily overstimulated by noises or body sensations that do not normally bother you. This can include things such as touch from others or tags on clothing. The anger may feel sudden and uncontrollable, which is a sign that your trauma has been triggered.
Trauma can leave a lasting impact on our emotional well-being. Dr. Thulin suggests that unexplained changes in mood can be a sign that something is off. Maybe you’re feeling more down than usual or struggling to shake off feelings of worthlessness. Or perhaps you’re feeling a mix of intense sadness and hypomania, where you’re driven to seek out novelty or change in an effort to avoid dealing with difficult emotions. Feelings of hopelessness or the belief that the future is doomed in some way can also be signs that your trauma has been triggered.
Another common response to trauma is dissociation – a way for the mind to distance itself from the body and the present moment. Dr. Thulin says this feels like you’re disconnected from time and place, and the world around you is foggy or blurry, as if you’re not fully present. You may also experience derealization, where the world seems fake, like you’re watching a movie or playing a video game. Dissociation can also take the form of re-experiencing your trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, or daydreaming.
The last sign of a triggered trauma that Dr. Thulin mentions is anxiety. If you’re triggered, you may get stuck in a cycle of worrying and ruminating over past experiences or future fears. These thoughts can be accompanied by a general sense of unease or that something is wrong and can often be accompanied by physical symptoms such as feeling jumpy, a racing heart or shortness of breath. Some people may also find themselves researching their trauma, but avoid taking action or allowing themselves to feel it. Additionally, it’s common to minimize the trauma and say things like “it wasn’t that bad”, “others have it worse” or even “it’s not really trauma” – even though your trauma is valid!
These triggers can be challenging to manage. It may feel overwhelming and defeating at times. However, with the right approach, they can be managed!
Remember the bottom-up trauma process we discussed earlier? Apart from explaining how trauma develops, the bottom-up process can also be used in recovery! In her YouTube video, trauma psychotherapist Amanda Ann Gregory discussed the concept of bottom-up treatment approaches for trauma. She explained that bottom-up approaches focus on addressing the first and second parts of the brain, reptilian and mammalian. As she explains, these are the parts where trauma usually lives, especially in cases of developmental trauma and complex trauma. Bottom-up therapies are designed to help rewire the brain. In a way, it aims to delete that pathway from the reptilian brain to the neocortex which triggers travel through. Instead, you learn to listen to your body and feel your emotions in a safe setting. Once you feel safe with your trauma, you can start learning a new coping mechanism. And by coping in a healthy way with your triggers, you’ll slowly start to realize that past triggers can’t hurt you anymore.
It’s important to remember that healing from trauma takes time and effort, and it’s okay to not have all the answers right away. Your brain went through a lot, and it deserves kindness, love, and time to rewire the pathways that cause you to be stuck in the past. Please don’t be afraid to reach out for help, whether it be from friends, family, or a professional. You deserve to be free of your triggers and to live fully in the present moment! And don’t forget: you matter!
Gregory, A. A. (2021). Bottom-Up treatment approaches to trauma treatment [Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nv1Xf2HRm1g&t=1s
Kleim, B., Graham, B., Bryant, R. A., & Ehlers, A. (2013). Capturing intrusive re-experiencing in trauma survivors’ daily lives using ecological momentary assessment. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(4). https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034957
Psy.D., M. J. (2021, November 29). How does trauma hijack the brain? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-savvy-psychologist/202111/how-does-trauma-hijack-the-brain
Thulin, K. (2020, October 28). Signs you’ve been triggered: Examples of trauma symptoms. The Catalyst Center. https://catalystcenterllc.com/signs-youve-been-triggered-examples-of-trauma-symptoms/