Trigger warning: The following blog post discusses trauma dynamics and includes examples of trauma triggers. As such, it has the potential to cause significant distress, intrusive thoughts, or recurrent thoughts. Please proceed carefully. If triggers occur and you need support, please refer to the hotlines provided on our page of Resources for Survivors.
My husband slammed the door one evening, and it triggered a memory. Suddenly, I was a four-year-old girl running away from my dad, hiding in a corner. My dad followed me, slammed the door, and came after me. Suddenly, I was transported back in time. I hit the ground in the fetal position, sobbing. I couldn’t escape the fear, even though I was perfectly safe.
This was early in my marriage, and I was young and naive. I didn’t know what a trigger was. I did what most people who have experienced significant trauma would do. I blamed my husband. I deflected. Instead of dealing with my past, I blamed the people in my present.
How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?
It's long been accepted that we don’t just get over trauma — especially childhood trauma. Those who have been abused, molested, and/or neglected don’t just get over it. Even if the perpetrator is behind bars, it’s not over. Many times, the trauma sets up triggers that keep victims stuck in survival mode. Fight. Flight. Freeze.
When someone has had trauma in their life — abuse, neglect, incest, molestation, sexual abuse, or chronic stress from living in a chaotic home due to alcohol or drug abuse — it’s not over when it’s over. In other words, once the event is over, the effects are still there. Just as there is no walking away from a knife fight without a wound and then a scar, there is no walking away from trauma without both short- and long-term effects.
“A scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.”
- Scott McClellan
Trauma halts brain development. It’s pretty amazing what the brain will do to protect a person. If you were traumatized at 13, your development may freeze there until you can begin to process the trauma.
“You may be one of those who was abused or neglected as a child and it is still influencing who you are today. Someone might have been evil to you and taken advantage of you and then made you feel like an object, a piece of meat — anything but a whole person.”
- Steve Arterburn
You may be in your twenties, thirties, or forties, and you haven’t gotten over something that happened to you as a child. Whatever it is has you frozen in time. The abuser is still abusing you emotionally. He still has power.
Your past is your present and your future.
Does Time Heal All Wounds?
Maybe you want to move forward, but you have believed the myth that time heals all wounds.
Maybe people have told you that. Maybe you believe that if enough time passes, the triggers will no longer be there. The effects of trauma will disappear. So you wait. Maybe you are ill and anxious. Maybe you are stuck in survival mode. Maybe you deflect, taking your past trauma out on your family and friends.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but there is hope. You can grieve your past. When you resist grieving, you drag your past around with you. Grieving is hard work; you have to practice grief.
Remember that healing is a job. It’s not easy, but in the long run, it’s worth it.
How Do Triggers Work?
My eldest son was adopted from Poland when he was seven years old. I’m not going to tell his story, but my husband and I had to do the work of identifying his triggers. A child is often not aware of these, even more so than an adult.
One evening, my hubby Jerry came home from work. Jerry was standing on the landing having a conversation with eldest son and changing his clothes at the same time. He pulled his belt off in a swoosh, and our son hit the ground, screaming, “Don’t beat me! Don’t beat me! I’m sorry!” He sobbed and then took off to hide. Jerry was just trying to change into shorts to go outside with him. The belt was a trigger.
Once a trigger comes through your five senses, it immediately translates into a feeling. It's like being on Star Trek and being beamed to another planet. Your mind tells you that you are someplace else. The amygdala, the watchdog of the brain, takes over and releases cortisol into your body. You are transported to a time in the past that you are trying to escape.
What Steps Can I Take Toward Healing?
So what can you do to escape the trigger cycle and grieve?
You can identify your triggers. Journaling helps with this. Often, a scent can be a trigger. For me, it was wine. Your trigger could be the sound of a door slamming, a loud voice, quiet, a certain soft blanket — the list goes on and on.
You can put up boundaries. Don’t allow people in your life who trigger you all the time.
You can tell your story to an empathetic listener. You can also to go to a counselor who has trauma training.
Healing is like peeling an onion. There are many layers to healing. It’s not one counseling session and done. It’s a lifelong pursuit. Think of other things you are willing to invest your time in: working out, keeping your house, your job, or raising your family. The job of healing is worth your time. It’s an investment in your future.
You don’t have to stay stuck in the past. You can find hope and healing.
If you are an abuse survivor in search of healing, we invite you to join our secure Survivor Tribe community. This social media-style support group allows you to connect with other survivors who understand what you’re going through. To learn more, visit the Survivor Tribe website, survivortribewv.com.
We also encourage any survivors in need of support to call the hotlines provided on our page of Resources for Survivors.
About the Author: Kathleen Guire is a certified Empowered to Connect Parent Trainer and author of Positive Adoption. She is also the primary writer behind The Whole House. You can read her full bio here.