The Mystery of Triggers
iStock IMG #487316954

The Mystery of Triggers

Years ago, after a professional development conference, I had dinner with two of the main speakers.  One of them, who was employed as a physician told an interesting story about how she had mysteriously been triggered by an event that confused her.


She explained that she had been watching television when, for the first time, green night vision during war maneuvers was being broadcast.  The hair on the back of her neck rose and she was immediately thrown into a state of anxiety.  It took some time before she could, with the help of therapy, figure out why this had occurred. 


Apparently, as a pre-verbal child, she had been living in London, England when bombs were dropped on that city.  She didn’t really remember this, but her body did.  In fact, the trauma had been stored in her body and hidden from everyone including herself until it was re-activated by the television trigger.  Then her body, without any explanation, began re-living the trauma that she had experienced as a child.  This was scary and confusing for her.


Working with Veterans has given me a lot of insight into how others are haunted by traumatic incidents long after they have originally occurred.


Imagine that your brain has three parts.  Of course, there are many more, but let’s focus on three for now.  The part at the back of the head is the reptilian brain which is active from birth and causes flight or fight reactions.  In the middle of the brain is the limbic system which includes the amygdala, a tiny organ that deals with emotions and acts like a smoke detector when the emotions are too strong. 


The pre-frontal cortex which is behind the forehead holds the executive function for problem-solving and organizational tasks.  This, unfortunately functions about ten times slower than the limbic system and so it shorts out when the amygdala alarm is raging.  The result of this is that the emotions cannot be processed by the pre-frontal cortex so instead are sent to the reptilian brain where the person goes into either fight or flight mode without being able to problem-solve or process information.


Now, let’s talk about two types of stored memory.  Explicit memory involves being able to calmly recall information about experiences that we have had.  Implicit memory, however, is the type that the physician experienced.  It involves storage of traumatic experiences in the body that remain hidden until triggered.  Unfortunately, we don’t know that they are there, what will trigger them or when that might occur.  Triggers might be as simple as a colour, smell or item of clothing that immediately unlocks the implicit memories and a negative reaction.  This feels like the trauma is happening right at that moment even though it might have happened many years before.


I have heard stories from clients who confine themselves to their homes because they are afraid of being triggered.  Actually, they are not afraid of the trigger.  They are afraid of how they might react when they are entering a world full of triggers.  Nothing seems safe and it is easier to just stay at home than to risk becoming out of control and looking foolish in a community setting.


When everything is working well, the brain is like green on a traffic light.   When triggers are occurring imagine the brain changes to be more like the yellow on the traffic light.  When trauma is occurring, the brain reacts as though it is in the red zone.  Sadly, most people are living in the yellow zone or easily triggered into it, and this explains why many seem to be “on edge” and stressed.


Dealing with trauma is a very complex undertaking and something that might take years of therapy and diligence to manage.  Triggers remind individuals about past trauma and set off reactions as though the trauma is occurring in the present. The brain forgets that these are implicit memories from the past and that the person is actually safe in the present so negative reaction is not warranted!  Learning to put things in perspective while calming the brain and body is key!


So now you have a little knowledge about how the brain works when traumatized and when triggered.  The good news is that as complex trauma therapists we are constantly learning more and more about how to help individuals manage their symptoms and live healthier lives!

Back to blog