Every trauma we suffer has two major possible components: pain and emotional pain. It can have one or the other, and it can have both. After that traumatic events are all made up of the variable details: who, what, where, when, why and then all of the hidden sensory input: what could be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and felt.
The reason we’re unable to completely disarm some traumatic events is the lack of realization of all the details surrounding us during the event. At the time of the event we are focused on the danger at hand. We quickly slide into fight or flight mode using the limbic system of the brain known as the amygdala. It is the most primitive portion of our brain responsible solely for survival and is often referred to as the lizard brain due to the fact that the limbic system is pretty much all there is to a lizard’s brain – survival.
As we go through a traumatic event, our analytical brain function dials down. This is because the analytical brain and amygdala are unable to function at full capacity at the same time. We tune out much of the details around us outside of the antagonizing force we are dealing with in the moment. It is not that we do not take the details in at all, it is that the volume is turned down on them due to their lack of importance in the moment.
All of those low-volume details do not cease to exist, they are stored instead in the same limbic system that governs fight or flight. This area is the Reticular Activating System or RAS. It is responsible for bringing details in and out of our focus dependent upon circumstances at any given time. We are surrounded by sensory input all the time. If our brain focused on all the details surrounding us all the time we couldn’t process a rational thought.
With all the aforementioned in mind, here is why trauma continues to haunt us even decades later. All of those hidden details become what psychology refers to as “triggers”. Triggers can be any little detail that was present during the traumatic event: the color of paint on the walls, a pin someone was wearing on a hat, a song that was playing in the background, the temperature, the weather, food cooking; you get the idea.
In our day-to-day life one detail or trigger happening around us at any given moment probably won’t even register. However, three, four or more triggers going on around us at the same time can be enough to bring on an emotional response to a situation that doesn’t even remotely resemble the initial trauma. You can be having an innocent discussion with a friend that escalates into an anxiety-filled fight or flight response of epic proportions. This is because enough unconscious triggers from a past traumatic event were present to turn on the fight or flight response in you. In that moment all you can do is whatever it takes to survive and get away. Then when the dust settles and you are mortified at your response (whether you admit it or not) you are unable to explain how things went that bad that fast. This scenario can continue to play out through the course of one’s life.
It is time to change how we face trauma. Medication, medical procedures, and many talk therapies have often had short-term affects but nothing that has given life-long change. We have a world filled with wonderful people who are being controlled by past events. We need better help physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually in returning the power of self to each of us.
What is needed is professionals trained in safely guiding people back through a trauma to unearth all those hidden details waiting to trigger another painful reliving of traumatic moments. As long as those details lay hidden, they continue to hold power over our responses to the world. Some of the work needed we can even start doing ourselves. No one knows us better than we do.
When we have a disproportionate response to current circumstances it is time to start sifting through the details. This begins with determining what past traumatic event did the current circumstances seem to bring up for us? Journaling is very good for this. Start writing out the details. In your mind look around the environment you were just in searching out the details that were also present in the initial traumatic moment. This is the way that we diffuse those triggers. You can come back to the journal repeatedly as more details come to light.
There is something else we need to do as we discover our triggers and take back our power from the past. We need to apologize to those we unintentionally hurt with our response to an innocent situation. I don’t say this lightly. However, it has saved some very important relationships in my world. Being able to say “I’m sorry” and sharing what set me off and what it reminded me of have been cathartic experiences bringing those I love closer to me again.
In the case of serious trauma involving any form of abuse or PTSD, please work with trained professionals who are willing to allow you to work through one layer at a time. This is not something that can be forced or rushed through. You deserve to be safe and experience the best outcomes as you work through your trauma(s). Interview professionals with whom you are considering working. Not all therapists are the same. You have to find someone with whom you feel comfortable with and that has had success helping with what you wish to achieve. I wish I had the answers to who those professionals are. It is something that certainly needs to be addressed so that those of us finding the courage and strength to take these steps may do so with those that instill confidence and trust.
If you are a professional doing this type of work, or you are someone who has worked with one that was successful in helping you, please share that information in the comments. Let’s all help each other safely make this journey. We deserve to be living our best lives free of the past.