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Understanding and Overcoming Trauma Triggers: Empowering Yourself for Healing

Do you understand your trauma triggers well? Can you overcome your trauma triggers when you are seized by them? Can you cope with being triggered without resorting to maladaptive behaviours?


Trauma is a complex and deeply ingrained aspect of human experience, affecting individuals in various ways. One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with trauma is the presence of triggers—events, situations, or stimuli that can evoke intense emotional reactions and bring back painful memories.


In this blog post, we will explore the concept of trauma triggers, delve into the Window of Tolerance, and discuss empowering strategies for overcoming and managing these triggers in your journey towards healing.


How Understanding the Brain Can Help


It is helpful to understanding what happens in your brain when you are triggered. Understanding the mechanism of the trauma triggers can help you overcome them and empower yourself - simply because knowledge is power. Understanding how trauma triggers operate can take away the shame, blame, and hopelessness.


Trauma triggers often activate:

1) the hippocampus (responsible for memory) AND

2) the amygdala (casually situated next to the hippocampus and is responsible for the activation of survival responses, and in the case of trauma triggers, trauma responses).

3) the timekeeper in the hippocampus becomes under-activated or even shrinks during times of high stress and trauma (which can explain being ripped into the past or acute memory loss)

Understanding that Trauma Triggers Activate The Amygdala and the Hippocampus
Trauma Triggers Activate The Amygdala and the Hippocampus Source: Image by Freepik

The trauma trigger loops in the emotional side of the brain, or the limbic system, and disconnects from the part of your brain that is responsible for rational thinking and cognitive processing. Therefore, the rational part of the brain is trapped outside the emotional brain, banging on sound-proof doors, desperately trying to help the emotionally-laden brain to resolve the trauma.

Rational part of the brain being kicked out: Trauma Trigger Response
Rational part of the brain being kicked out: Trauma Trigger Response

But alas, it takes time for the emotionally-laden trauma triggered brain to come back to the rational whole brain state.


Emotionally Loaded Trauma Triggered Brain - trauma response
Emotionally Loaded Trauma Triggered Brain

Your brain is a very powerful organ that can suddenly take you back in time and flood you with a myriad of emotions that you may not be able to handle. It is wired this way to ensure your survival. The survival of your biological being.

Your brain is NOT wired to empower you for healing and for the survival of your psychological health and wellbeing.

Your brain is designed to ensure you can save yourself from life-threatening danger long enough to procreate and raise your offspring for the successful reproduction of your genetic material.


Now that we have that understanding, let us return to trauma triggers. People find various ways to self-soothe or cope with their trauma triggers


What are Trauma Triggers?


Trauma triggers are external or internal cues that resemble or connect to elements of a traumatic event. These triggers can spark off a cascade of emotional and physical responses, from anxiety and panic to anger and withdrawal. Understanding and identifying your specific trauma triggers is a crucial step in the healing process. You can only overcome your trauma triggers by understanding them. Ask yourself:

What are the kind of environments, people or stimuli that have caused me to experience high stress, anxiety attacks, bouts of rage or explosive anger, or led me to shut down or feel numb?

The Window of Tolerance


The Window of Tolerance is a concept developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry. It represents the optimal zone of arousal where you can effectively process information and engage in daily activities without becoming overwhelmed by stress or shutting down emotionally.


Trauma survivors often find themselves operating outside this window, swinging between hyperarousal (fight or flight) and hypoarousal (freeze or dissociation).


window of tolerance to cope with trauma triggers and trauma responses
Window of Tolerance by Dan Siegel

Empowering Strategies for Healing

  1. Self-awareness: Begin by cultivating self-awareness. Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Identify patterns and notice when you start to feel overwhelmed or disconnected.

  2. Mindfulness and grounding techniques: Practice mindfulness to stay present in the moment. Grounding techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or using your senses to connect with the environment, can help anchor you within the Window of Tolerance.

  3. Develop a support system: Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or professionals who can offer understanding, validation, and guidance. Having a safe space to share your experiences can be instrumental in the healing process. Ensure that you connect with your support system regularly.

  4. Therapeutic interventions: Explore therapeutic interventions like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic experiencing, Parts Work like Internal Family System (IFS) or Theory of Parts. These approaches can help reprocess traumatic memories and provide tools for managing triggers.

  5. Create a safety plan: Develop a personalized safety plan with your trauma therapist that includes strategies for coping with trauma triggers. This could involve having a list of comforting activities, a trusted person to call, or specific affirmations that help ground you during challenging moments. Work with your therapist on the different ways you can expand your Window of Tolerance.

  6. Gradual exposure: Work with your trauma therapist to gradually expose yourself to triggering situations in a controlled and supportive manner if it is necessary. This can help desensitize the emotional charge associated with specific triggers over time. This can be done through imagination, psychodrama, or even in real life.

  7. Self-compassion: Be gentle with yourself throughout the healing journey. Recognize that overcoming trauma triggers is a process that takes time and effort.

Remember: Neurons that fire together wire together.

This means that if you have a cluster of trauma trigger neurons that have been firing for years, it will take some time to rewire them.

Neurons that fire together wire together so expect that trauma recovery takes time
Neurons that fire together wire together

Celebrate small victories and practice self-compassion as you navigate the ups and downs.

Think about recovery through terms of

1) intensity, and

2) frequency and how long it takes you to get your whole brain back online

rather than focusing on the fact that you still get triggered.


Understanding and overcoming trauma triggers is a vital aspect of the healing journey. By incorporating the Window of Tolerance concept and adopting empowering strategies, you can navigate the challenges of trauma with resilience and strength. Remember that healing is a unique and ongoing process, and with the right support and tools, you can empower yourself to reclaim control over your life.


If you are looking to work with a trauma therapist, you are welcome to book an appointment with me to discuss your trauma recovery.


Additionally, if you would like to learn more about the nature of trauma and trauma work

join my conversations with

psychologist Sharon Stern on

and

clinical psychotherapist Natajsa Wagner on


For additional information on understanding and overcoming trauma triggers, refer to these sources:


Sources







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