A traumatic eventcan be defined as a single experience or repeating event that completely overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Wars, natural disasters, accidents, serious illness, unexpected death of someone close, and domestic violence are all examples of events that can turn one’s world “upside down”, destroying one’s sense of security, safety, and order as the struggle just to survive, physically and emotionally, becomes the most pressing issue.
We humans have a built-in survival mechanism that is activated when we believe we are in a “life or death” circumstance. Sometimes it’s called the “fight-flight-freeze” response. This response operates below the level of higher, analytical thought. If you were crossing a dark road and all of a sudden, a car swerves in your direction at a high rate of speed, would you have time to ponder what to do next? Not really. Your life might depend on a split-second judgement by your survival mechanism to flee, fight, or freeze. Most likely, you would dive out of the way, without thinking.
Important parts of traumatic memories are stored in the middle and lower parts of our brains, which are preverbal and respond to sensory input (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures). One part of the middle brain, the amygdala, has been termed the “emotional watchdog”, always on the lookout for danger.
The amygdala is concerned with keeping us safe, above all else, so any sensory experience that “sort of” resembles any part of the original traumatic event, can put this part of the brain on “high alert”, automatically triggering a survival response that may not be necessary and may even block our ability to grow, thrive, and heal from the original trauma.
Can a person reduce, or even eliminate “trauma triggers”? This question is addressed in some exciting group work that I am currently involved in. Please watch for continuing posts on reclaiming your life from trauma.