Trauma and Its Triggers

Trauma is so damaging in part because it’s reactivated by sights, smells, conversations, etc., that we associate with the original event. Discovering and disarming these triggers is critical to any recovery journey.

What is trauma, and how do we process and integrate the experiences that might feel extremely painful and shattering to us, so they help us grow and make meaning of our unique soul journey? Most of us are familiar with the word trauma and have a sense of what it means. What a lot of us aren’t aware of is that it can come in a lot of different forms and affect people in a variety of ways, some of which aren’t immediately obvious. When we understand what to look for when it comes to trauma, we can recognize the symptoms and help ourselves and the people around us through the process of picking up the pieces in the aftermath.

Psychology Today defines trauma as “a deeply disturbing event that infringes upon an individual’s sense of control and may reduce their capacity to integrate the situation or circumstances into their current reality.”

Trauma has a number of dimensions, and it can emerge from things we consciously remember or things we’ve buried. It can be the result of clearly distressing circumstances, such as sexual or physical abuse, living through wartime, surviving extreme poverty, or experiencing the disintegration of a family due to addiction and betrayal. These are the “big T” traumas that come to mind for many of us.

But not every trauma is marked by obvious catastrophe. Some traumas are mundane and occur on a regular basis: the death of a beloved pet or family member, a move to a remote location that cuts you off from the life you once knew, or the experience of having a teacher belittle you in grade school. These are the “little T” traumas that can feel like a thousand tiny paper cuts. Maybe we don’t even refer to these events as “trauma,” but the imprint they’ve left behind says otherwise. We may seem fine to the world, but little T trauma disrupts our emotional functioning and can make us feel helpless and powerless in the face of external circumstances.

Overall, trauma isn’t necessarily about what we experienced, but the meaning we made of that experience, whether it was a one-time occurrence or something that happened multiple times over a long period. Sometimes, people assume that because they have lived what they consider a “good” life (e.g., they grew up in a safe home and community, with plenty of food to eat and access to important resources), that means they didn’t experience trauma. But when it comes down to it, trauma is something that is signaled by the activation of the nervous system—not our stories about what did or didn’t happen.

When we’re averse to the word, this can preclude us from taking stock of the experiences in our lives that created a sense of wounding or that infringed upon our well-being in a long-lasting way. It can keep us from unpacking unresolved experiences, which can unconsciously lead to the challenges we face later in our lives—especially if we choose self-destructive coping behaviors to avoid feeling or integrating the devastation that our trauma brought about. There are four main trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn:

  • The fight response is all about self-preservation—even if that means hurting someone else to stay alive. An unhealthy fight response can cause you to engage in bullying, abusive, or controlling behaviors, or to unleash your rage in ways that are disproportionate to the actual experience.
  • The flight response is also about self-preservation, but it happens when you sense that defeat feels inevitable, so you leave the situation altogether. It can manifest as compulsive tendencies, a constant state of anxiety, difficulty staying still, and the need to keep busy at all times.
  • The freeze response is what happens when an animal plays “dead” when it’s threatened; people can do the same thing. When you’re in the grip of the freeze response, you tend to dissociate, isolate yourself from others, zone out, and refrain from trying new things or taking decisive action.
  • The fawn response occurs when you attempt to neutralize a threat by appeasing another person. This could look like staying in a toxic relationship, having zero healthy boundaries, and losing yourself in people-pleasing.

A trauma response might have been something we learned in order to survive through a traumatic experience, such as being in a household with an abusive parent. It can then occur at a later stage in life as the default that a person resorts to when they’re faced with a situation that their brain registers as “similar” to that earlier trauma.

Trauma responses get kicked up without our conscious mind being aware of what’s happening. Even if you are in an objectively safe situation, a sound, smell, texture, or image can activate the brain’s memory of a past trauma, which then gets associated with the present moment. This can all take place in nanoseconds and might leave you wondering, What just happened??? This might dredge up feelings of fear, shame, or confusion. It’s important to know that a trauma response is a normal response to something abnormal that happened to you. Your response isn’t “wrong,” even if it might not be skillful, and even if someone else who suffered the same or very similar circumstances reacts differently. Whatever triggers your response—a memory, a smell, a situation—activates under stress, and your body and brain react in the way they do to protect you.

There are many steps to recognizing the trauma you’ve experienced, realizing how it affected you, and learning methods to deal with it, usually with some form of outside help. But the first and most crucial is to realize that trauma can happen to anyone, and that a trauma response is a form of self-protection that probably originated a long time ago. But you can experience psychological safety in the present. Even in the face of external triggers that you associate with an undesirable past experience, or situations that genuinely feel threatening in the moment, you can learn tools that affirm your sense of safety and worthiness, and that help you to recognize the resources you do have that enable you to stand up for yourself, that remove you from a bad situation, and that honor your resilience.

As you work through your trauma, it’s important to be sympathetic, kind, and patient with yourself. Traumatic experiences can make us feel so alone, which is why the important work of integrating all parts of who we are requires us to become our own best friend…to know that the wise, loving aspect of the soul is always with us, reminding us that we’re never alone.

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