Trauma triggers are anything that serve as a reminder of painful events in your life. They can be people, places, things, or situations. Thoughts, feelings, and sensations may also be connected to trauma memories. It is important to begin to understand your trigger patterns because they will often be the source of your emotional rollercoaster taking off.
Sometimes the triggers are obvious for betrayal survivors, like sex scenes in movies. At other times the triggers may be unclear, like the vague but so distressful feeling that something is wrong or the sense that you aren’t emotionally safe in the absence of any apparent reason. Your confusion in that type of situation is compounded by an inability to figure out if this is your intuition telling you that something is wrong, or if it is merely your fear about something that happened in the past that your are feeling in the now. In either case, you are left with the urge to either do something right away to make the discomfort go away, or the sense that there is nothing you can do, that you are paralyzed by shock, trapped by not knowing what to do, or folding into a sense of helplessness and despair.
Your triggers elicit an instantaneous response because they are controlled by the part of the brain that regulates survival responses, the type of split second responses that occur before the logical part of the brain can analyze the situation. Some women, in some situations, may respond with fight urges, others with flight urges. Most will alternate between the betrayal trauma “Should I stay or should I go?” dance of indecisiveness. And when there is no real answer, when we are unable to successfully take action – sometimes because we don’t know what the real truth is – or when the emotional response to the trigger feels overwhelming, we default to a feeling of freeze or of being trapped.
Trigger responses can be huge even for what we think of as minor events. Triggers are kind of like a molecule. Different events from different points in time can connect together to form giant trauma molecules. For example, hearing a love song may bring up a cherished memory of a vacation with your spouse, followed by the awareness of how much you trusted him them, that is now attached to the memory of discovering betrayal and new awareness that you can’t trust him now and the fear that you may never be able to trust again. Alternatively, being left out of a luncheon invitation with a group of friends may bring up a lifetime of feeling like you don’t fit in or are being rejected by others, now compounded by a feeling of being rejected by your betraying spouse. Trauma triggers are complicated because they may literally be attached to hundreds of memories.
Betrayal triggers are particularly difficult because at its core betrayal is always a breach of trust. We all have millions of experiences with trust and mistrust across our lifetimes. Trust is built upon or destroyed with every interaction, both big and small, that we have with others, and with ourselves. When trust issues are triggered you feel the full weight of all the trust breaches of your life. And any person you happen to be with at that moment has no idea how much you are experiencing on the inside.
Beginning to identify your triggers is an important early step towards preventing or decreasing avoidable triggers and will give you a greater sense of predictability in the chaos of betrayal trauma recovery. You can eventually use this knowledge to build in trauma-savvy self-care that will help soothe your mind, body and spirit.
I encourage you to design your own trauma molecule to help you identify your triggers. Fill in as many of the triggers on your trauma molecule as you can today. Add additional triggers as you become aware of them, especially ones that you might initially have recognized as a trigger. Logging your triggers over time will likely make it clear to you that although many of your triggers do create an instantaneous reaction, others are actually cumulative and build up over time until you hit your threshold. Threshold triggers can often be neutralized or greatly diminished by self-soothing early in the build up.
Dr. Janice Caudill is the founder and Clinical Director of McKinney Counseling & Recovery. MCR offers individual, couples, group therapy, webinars, workshops and 3-day intensives for sex addiction recovery, intimacy anorexia, intimacy deprivation and partners of sex addicts, kintsugi couple recovery intensives for wounded hearts struggling with the impact of sex addiction, infidelity, love addiction or love avoidance, intimacy anorexia, or relational trauma. MCR serves the McKinney, Plano, Allen, Richardson, Frisco, Prosper, Carrollton, Lewisville, Dallas and surrounding areas.
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