What Is a Trigger, and What Makes it happen?
Experiencing a sudden onset of the feelings and emotions that you felt during an abusive situation is a common experience for survivors. This is because the brain records and stores traumatic memories differently from non-traumatic ones. Trauma floods the body with hormones that turn off certain parts of the brain and make other parts go into overdrive.
Traumatic memories are often stored in the amygdala, which significantly changes how those memories are later recalled. This part of the brain records what happened as sensory fragments, capturing how the five senses experienced the trauma. When recalled, a survivor relives the abuse as a mix of visual image, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
Since the memory is stored as what the senses experienced, the brain can be “triggered” to recall the memory with sensory input. This is often called a flashback. A particular cologne smell may automatically take you back to what happened. Or a green shirt is no longer just a green shirt; it’s the abuser returning to do more harm. The brain loses the ability to tell the difference between what is normal and what is a threat.
Another important thing to know about the amygdala is that it is unable to tell time. This means that when it detects the green shirt and associates it with the abuser, your brain interprets the danger as happening right now rather than a memory of the past. Breathing and heartrate increase, your palms become sweaty, and you react as if you are under attack. Some people describe it as a panic attack. All these, and many more, reactions are a normal response to being triggered.
Understanding triggers is an important first step to overcoming them. After you have recovered from a triggering experience, look back and ask yourself what caused it to happen. If you cannot figure out what caused it, don’t worry. That is normal, too. Keep a log, and after a while you may begin to see a pattern.
Once you understand what your triggers are, you can begin to address them. Knowledge is powerful. Some survivors find that once they know what will trigger them, they can plan for it and even manage it. We talk more in another article about ways to manage a flashback.