What Are Trauma Triggers?

When someone has experienced trauma, they are very often left with residual and long-lasting effects. One of these effects is what we commonly call ‘triggers.’ A trigger is essentially an instinctual response based on external stimuli that associate with the trauma a person has experienced. Any sensation (such as smell, sound, or touch), situation or reminder could bring about such a response. As you might imagine, this makes triggers very unpredictable and potentially scary for the trauma survivor. Imagine never knowing when you might be suddenly compelled to run away, cry, scream or attack. Many trauma survivors live with this uncertainty every day. 

If you have a loved one, client or fellow church member who experiences being triggered, it may seem very scary for you as well. You want to be helpful, and you certainly don’t want to make things worse. Let’s explore some triggers that are common to trauma survivors in order to help you better understand and come toward someone in their moment of need.

What’s happening when a person is triggered?

When a person is triggered, an automatic bodily system kicks into gear. The body and brain communicate with each other in a split second, indicating that danger is imminent. A trauma survivor doesn’t have to be in actual danger for this system to kick in. When the brain perceives an indicator that is similar enough to the trauma itself, it will do its job to protect the body from harm. 

Here’s an example: let’s say you were bit by a snake when you were young. Then as an adult you are walking through the woods with friends and spot something long and thin on the path ahead. You immediately feel a burst of adrenaline and have an instinct to run away, even before you know whether a snake is on the path. That’s a trigger. Your instinct to run supersedes your logical decision-making.

When trauma occurs, the senses pick up sharp details about the environment. Those sensations are recorded in the brain for the purpose of future protection. That’s why a survivor of combat trauma might react strongly when a car backfires, even though he knows there are no guns or bombs in his vicinity. The response is automatic. 

Here are some other things to know about triggers. These experiences are highly unique to every individual. Just as we cannot predict when triggers will occur, we cannot create a list of triggers that every survivor is likely to experience. In addition, something that triggers a person at one time may never disturb her again. You can imagine how maddening this can feel to survivors – never being able to avoid the triggers completely because there is no discernable pattern. 

Finally, it’s important to note that triggers often happen in public settings. This means that the survivor inadvertently draws attention to herself in the moment of disruption, which can be embarrassing and can even amplify the fight/flight response. 

What are some common triggers?

Trauma survivors can be triggered by all kinds of things. Sometimes a person is triggered by being touched (especially in a way that is similar to a touch experienced during trauma), and sometimes loud noise or large crowds can trigger a fight/flight response. Many trauma survivors are triggered by specific smells, tastes or sounds, as well as situations and locations that remind them of their trauma.

Remember that a trigger is a response to something that reminds the survivor of his or her trauma, which means that the fight/flight response is activated in the same way it was activated during the trauma itself. So in any way that a person may respond to a traumatic event, they may also respond to triggers. A common response may be to withdraw or detach from people and situations, which is a ‘flight’ response. If a person’s ‘fight’ response kicks in, he may use words or actions to exert himself toward getting safe. Examples could be yelling, hitting, running, etc. If a person’s ‘freeze’ response kicks in, he may feel numb or unable to move or think. 

No matter how a person is triggered, there are some specific ways you can approach them in order to support them and help slow down their body’s automatic responses. I recommend that you stay calm and seek to move and speak slowly. Do not touch them without permission, and ask them how you can serve them. Attune to their needs and remind them that you are there to provide support. I also recommend that you follow up with them after the trigger has subsided. This encourages the person that you want to continue to be a safe person and serve them in whatever way you are able. 

Finally, compassion is paramount when someone is triggered. The survivor needs empathy and support above all, and any friend, neighbor, co-worker or loved one can be that supportive person. 

There are some specific techniques you can utilize to help diffuse trauma triggers. Christian Trauma Healing Network is offering a webinar called “Diffusing Trauma Triggers.” Click below to learn more about this event.

Safety is Essential for Healing

Before I talk about safety, I’d like to recap the other posts in the series so far. If you’ve missed any of them, I recommend you go back and look them over before continuing ahead. I’ve placed them in a particular order because understanding and clarity should begin to occur before jumping into the practical steps for healing. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  • “Is Anxiety Rooted in Trauma?” – In this post we discussed the overlap between anxiety and trauma, and we explored how we can discover whether our anxiety comes from unhealed traumatic events in our past.
  • “What Makes an Event Traumatizing?” – Here we listed several types of events that can traumatize a person, and we discovered that an event becomes traumatizing not based on the gravity of the event, but based on the state of the person involved and his/her ability to make choices.
  • “How Trauma Affects Us” – In this post I shared three signs to look for that may indicate you’ve experienced trauma that needs healing: changes in mood, relationship struggles, and bodily symptoms.
  • “The First Step in Healing from Past Trauma” – This post focused on the importance of having a safe person with whom you can talk about painful things. I also addressed how to be a safe person for someone who’s experiencing traumatization.
  • “Deep Breathing: Healing Anxiety and Trauma” – Last week’s post focused on the importance of calming our bodies through deep breathing. Without a calm body, mental and emotional health will be incomplete.

Now we’re going to take a deeper dive into the idea of safety. We do not find hope and joy in a vacuum. We also don’t find it while chaos is reigning. That’s why it’s so important to create spaces of safety when you’re trying to heal. So how is this possible?

First off, if you’re in an unsafe environment on a daily basis, healing will be hard to come by. Think of it like someone who’s just had surgery at a hospital. In the recovery process, the patient needs to be monitored and re-bandaged often in order to ensure he is getting back to normal. If a person refused these services and demanded to go home for this process, the doctors would surely object. When there’s been a significant wound, that wound needs time, space and intentionality in order to heal. If there’s continual re-injury, the wound will continue to fester.

Let me put it bluntly: if you’re in a home or a workplace in which you’re being wounded continually, your healing process will be slowed. It’s not impossible to heal in this context, but I would definitely recommend that your first step is to seek counsel on how to increase safety in your environment. You can talk with a trusted friend, a pastor with a good reputation for understanding and caring for those in oppressive situations, a hotline for those who are experiencing abuse (1-800-799-SAFE), or a professional counselor.

So your environment needs to be safe for healing to occur. This means you have:

  1. At least one safe person you can trust
  2. A physical place of refuge in your life
  3. Access to resources that maintain and increase safety

Let’s take these one at a time.

A safe person is someone who knows how to listen before they speak. It’s someone who commits to pray for you and offers wisdom that isn’t based solely on her own experience. She doesn’t throw Bible verses at you as if they’re pills for you to swallow, but she focuses on the attributes of God and His love for you in the midst of sorrow and difficulty. She’s not afraid to say hard things, but she believes in God’s timing and purposes in your life. She’s there for the long-haul and isn’t scared away by your struggle, even though she might not know what to say when you’re hurting.

A safe place allows you to have refuge. When chaos seems to be reigning in your everyday circumstances and in your mind, finding a quiet space is essential so that you can re-center your thoughts, emotions and body. This was essential even for Jesus (Mark 1:35), so of course we all need it. I have arranged a room in my home and called it “the quiet room.” I gave it this name so that my children would respect the space and speak quietly when they come in (not that this happens all the time, or even frequently, but we’re trying). This room contains my favorite chair, my favorite furniture, my favorite smells. It’s the space where I pray, read God’s Word, breathe deeply and journal. Maybe you don’t have access to an entire room, but I highly encourage you to create a space that is comfortable, cozy and relaxing (and do your breathing exercises there).

You’ll also need access to resources. I have known people who spent years just hanging on, waiting for their trauma to heal with time. It doesn’t happen. The Lord has given us His Body (the Church), wisdom from His Word, knowledge from the common graces of medicine and neuroscience, and educated people who have learned the steps toward healing in order to guide us on the journey. We are meant to utilize all these resources for the sake of healing.

You may not feel strong enough to create safety for yourself. If that’s the case, I encourage you to take one step. Just talk to one person who seems safe. Tell him or her that you feel weak and need some help to create physical safety and access resources. One step can take you a long way.

Deep Breathing for Anxiety and Trauma

“Don’t forget to breathe…very important.”

“The Karate Kid” was a movie we watched over and over again when I was a kid. If you’ve seen it, you remember Mr. Miyagi, the unassuming master who taught a bullied teenager the art of karate. Breathing was one of the primary lessons. It seemed almost comical to me that Mr. Miyagi had to remind Daniel to breathe during his exercises.

It’s not comical when I’m working with someone who’s very anxious or who needs healing from past trauma. Many trauma survivors have lost touch with their bodies. Sometimes it’s because their bodies betrayed them in a moment of terror. They wanted to run away or fight off their attackers, but their bodies froze and they were unable to defend themselves. Sometimes their bodies responded hormonally to physical touch that was unwanted, and they now hate those responses. Sometimes they simply stop listening to the signals their bodies give them because they don’t trust themselves to know what to do in difficult situations.

Getting back in touch with our bodies is a primary step in healing from trauma and anxiety, because we need to learn to trust ourselves again. We need to grow in the belief that our bodies are good, created by God and given to us as a gift. If you’re an abuse survivor, you may be cringing as you read these last two sentences. That makes complete sense. But if we want to heal, we need to reconnect – with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Even if you’re not a survivor of trauma, I want to encourage you to try the exercise I’m about to recommend. We all carry stress and pain in our bodies, and deep breathing is a way to release that stress and pain. It’s a way for us to exercise dominion in our bodies, to decrease stress and increase rest so that we can function with sound judgment and wisdom.

Diaphragmatic Breathing:

I recommend you sit in a comfortable chair with a high back so that your head is resting against something. You can also do this exercise lying down, although some people find it uncomfortable. The point is to be as comfortable as possible.

Close your eyes and take in the deepest breath you can, expanding your belly like a balloon. This hopefully takes six to eight seconds to achieve. Hold the breath in your abdomen and chest for three to four seconds, and concentrate on the sensation of being full of breath. Then slowly let the breath out of your body, which should take twelve to fourteen seconds. As you let the breath out, concentrate on how your body feels. Are their muscles that seem tense? What parts of your body feel relaxed, and what parts are holding pain?

Complete the exercise again, only this time concentrate on relaxing the muscles that seem tense as you exhale. Complete the exercise at least four more times, each time gaining greater muscle relaxation.

I recommend doing these breathing exercises twice a day. What you’re doing is teaching your body to respond to stressful moments by taking deep breaths. When we exhale slowly and relax our muscles, we’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system – the “brakes” of our nervous system. We need to tap the brakes when things get stressful, but we have inadvertently taught our bodies to keep the pedal to the metal, so to speak, when we’re stressed. We have learned that the answer to stopping stress is to work harder and get more done. The opposite is true.

Here’s what I noticed when I started doing these exercises (and many others have told me the same): when I consistently practiced these exercises while I was comfortable and at rest, my body started to automatically take deep breaths when I encountered something stressful during the day. Just like lifting weights helps a person be stronger for moments when they’re lifting the grocery bags or a child, deep breathing exercises helps us gain strength to de-stress in moments of tension. Try it out and send me a comment with your results!

The First Step in Healing From Past Trauma

Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

In my last post I discussed how trauma affects us. If you’re experiencing difficulty in your relationships, changes in mood, and bodily stressors, you may be dealing with the affects of past trauma. Coming to this realization can be really overwhelming – like standing in the ocean and suddenly being knocked off your feet by a huge wave. I’d like to offer a first step in seeking healing from trauma.

Step 1: Talk

There are many reasons we may choose not to talk with anyone about things that are bothering us. The most obvious reason I hear from people is shame. You may be afraid that your struggle is too big for other people to handle. Or you may believe what happened to you was at least partially your fault, and you’re afraid to share it because you’d be exposing your own vulnerability and weakness. Shame has a particular goal in the life of a Christian – to isolate. In the Garden of Eden when Adam and Even first sinned, they immediately hid both their whole bodies and the parts of their bodies that seemed shameful. They didn’t want God to know what had happened. We do the same thing in regard to our sin and in regard to the sin committed against us. But God’s voice finds its way into our experience. “Where are you?” The Lord wants us to come out of hiding and be seen – not to embarrass us further, but to clothe us and bring us back into the fullness of relationship that He has designed for us.

If you’re struggling with shame about things that have happened in your life, I recommend taking it to the Lord in prayer. Ask Him to call to your mind the name or face of a person who might be safe to talk with. God uses His people to bring connection and healing, and He means for you to share your burden with another Christian who can walk alongside you. Who might that person be? You’re looking for someone who is eager to listen, who is not quick to give advice from his/her personal experience, and who faithfully prays for you and encourages you in the Lord. It doesn’t have to be someone who has knowledge or experience in trauma. The first person to know about the painful parts of your story must simply be a person who loves you for who you are.

The second reason I often hear as to why people don’t want to talk about their painful memories is fear. It’s a legitimately scary thing to share your story with someone. Who knows how they’ll respond? Even people who’ve been kind to you in the past may not know what to say when you share something difficult. They may say something very hurtful, or they may be unaffected and indifferent. It’s a very real possibility. This is why I recommend that you pray for the Lord to highlight a person in your life who may be safe. Then pray for the conversation you’re going to have. Pray that you’ll have words to say and that the other person will have a listening ear and a compassionate heart.

The other thing I tell people when they’re preparing to share difficult things with another person is that they will probably want to coach that person before they begin to share. For example, if Sharon is planning to meet with Mindy to share some painful memories, she should ask Mindy if they can get together and let Mindy know that she wants to talk about some things that may seem heavy. Sharon can ask Mindy’s permission to discuss hard things, and this allows Mindy to prepare her heart for what she’ll hear. Sharon can also ask Mindy for permission to share freely without receiving any advice or instruction (at least in this first conversation). She can tell Mindy that she simply wants be heard, and that Mindy doesn’t have to feel the burden of knowing what to say. Her ministry of presence will be the most important thing.

I find that well-meaning people say the wrong thing when they feel an expectation to say something but don’t have words for what needs to be expressed. I love it when a friend gives me permission just to listen and sit with her in her grief. This allows me to be fully present and resist the urge to fix anything.

Step One is to talk. This step may take all the courage you have. It may seem like climbing Mount Everest. But confessing the painful things in your past has a similar effect as confessing your sin: it brings about prayer and begins the process of healing (James 5:16). Until someone else knows about your pain, you’ll carry the heavy burden alone. No one is meant to walk alone.

Now let me end by addressing those of you who are the “Mindy” in this scenario. Perhaps you have a friend who’s struggling, and they seem to have a hard time sharing. Or perhaps this friend has tried to share with you before and you did not listen intently. It’s not too late. Ask the Lord to reveal to you any person you could reach out to and offer to listen. I know it’s scary to bear another person’s burdens, but we must remember that Jesus is the ultimate burden-bearer. He carries the heavy load, and He gives us an easy yoke (Matthew 11:28-30). You don’t have to have good answers. You only have to have good ears and a loving heart.

In my next post, I’ll continue discussing steps toward healing from past trauma. Stay tuned!

How Trauma Affects Us

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In my last post, “What Makes An Event Traumatizing?”, I discussed various situations that can cause trauma. Many people are surprised to learn that even something like losing a job or witnessing a crime can be traumatizing. The common factor that causes an event to be traumatizing is helplessness. When we feel helpless to escape or rise up in a situation that’s terrifying, traumatization may be the result.

Many people have asked me how they can know an event has traumatized them. We may not remember that an event or circumstance was traumatic. We may have memories that are painful but not categorize them as traumatic. So how do we know if we have unhealed trauma?

I encourage people to look at their lives to see if there are signs that things are “off” or unsettled. I’m going to list some things you can watch for to learn whether you may have unhealed trauma, but first let me say this: if any of these signs are present in your life – even if you don’t have traumatic memories – it’s worth reaching out to a pastor, trusted friend or mental health professional to talk more about possible underlying causes.

Changes in Mood

Do you find yourself snapping angrily at people? feeling very anxious that someone will abandon you? experiencing sadness or even despair without knowing what’s causing it? People who’ve experienced trauma sometimes find their feelings overwhelming and seemingly unexplainable. They don’t understand why they have such strong emotional reactions when difficult situations arise. If your mood shifts suddenly, there’s a reason. You may not understand it, but your feelings are meant to be signposts. They show you what’s happening internally (if you’re paying attention to them). This is why it’s unhealthy to simply stuff an emotion or push it to the background for long periods of time. If you do this, it’s like ignoring the “Check Engine” light on your dashboard. Eventually the car will stop working.

Struggles in Relationships

Do you notice that you sometimes withdraw suddenly from conversation? defend yourself adamantly when there’s conflict? find yourself either shutting off your desire for connection or clinging desperately to a person you love? Most traumatizing events include a betrayal or loss of trust with another person. If you’ve been hurt deeply by someone at some time in your life, that pain will affect your current relationships while that wound is unhealed. And it’s not necessarily because you haven’t forgiven that person or because you don’t trust God with your pain. It may be because that memory was placed in your “procedural memory,” the part of your brain that records threat and works hard to keep those same threats from causing danger again. For example, if my parents divorced when I was a child and my father left and cut off relationship with me, I may have a deep fear of abandonment from those close to me. I may assume that when there’s an argument, my loved one will walk away and never return. The memory of my parents’ divorce is activating, showing me how to guard against further damage.

Bodily Symptoms

Do you have trouble sleeping? unexplained body aches? digestive issues? back problems? headaches? Obviously, all these symptoms could have various causes. But when a person has been traumatized, his body doesn’t fully go back to a state of rest after the traumatic event. He is continuing in a state of hyper-vigilance, watching for the next bad thing to happen. This causes massive stress on the body. Certain hormones course through the body, sending signals that a threat of harm is imminent. Living in this state can cause all the symptoms listed above. People sit in my office and say that they don’t know why they can’t rest. They feel frustrated that they’re always tense and can’t seem to settle down. Some of these people, as they process with me, discover that they have unhealed trauma.

What should I do if I think I have unhealed trauma?

My next post will begin to answer this question. But I’ll say again that if you’re struggling, the best thing you can have is another person. We are designed to walk this journey of life with others. Never alone. Talk to someone you trust. Ask for prayer. Seek help. This doesn’t mean you’re weak. It actually means you’re strong. You’re taking dominion.