You know how some triggers are obvious? A smell, a sound, a person, a place? The memory part of your brain (hippocampus) says “oh I remember this; this is bad.” It sends the signal immediately to the brain’s alarm system (amygdala) which in turn immediately sends out the stress hormone (cortisol) causing the fight/flight/freeze response. Thus you are brought right back to feeling unsafe. The slower message finally makes it to your conscious saying “no don’t worry; this is not the same situation; you are safe.” However, cortisol doesn’t just reabsorb into your body because you “know” you are now safe. For this trigger, you know something just reminded you of the traumatic event(s) and you can even point to what that was.
The brain is such an amazing organ. It connects memories from sometimes random threads. Other memories will then connect to the original memory through one of the memories threads. Then other memories through threads from the second tier of memories and so on. This causes a spiderweb of memories of sorts. It may look like this:
(Full memory of Thanksgiving at home – a positive memory) —- (Memory of the smell of pumpkin from Thanksgiving) —- (Memory of going to a pumpkin patch) —- (Memory of carving pumpkins for Halloween) —- (Halloween is scary – the haunted houses) —- (There was a movie you saw about a haunted house as a kid and got nightmares – a negative memory). All of a sudden, Thanksgiving reminds you of nightmares you got as a child.
Pretty crazy, huh? You start with a positive memory of Thanksgiving and all of a sudden, you are thinking of the nightmares you got as a child. All of our memory networks work like this. The difference is Thanksgiving at home was processed properly in the brain and filed properly. Traumatic memories are not. So something that may seem so disconnected from the trauma is causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction.
This is also why trauma therapy is so difficult. The threads that connect memories all need to be filed properly for the traumatic memory not to cause reactions anymore. If there are still memories held to the traumatic one by threads of other memories, those threads will connect to the traumatic memory causing the fight/flight/freeze reaction.
Remember how I mentioned above some triggers are obvious? A smell, a sound, a person, a place? The brain actually stores memories as all five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste), as well as emotions (have you noticed that when you’re afraid, you may then remember other times you were afraid or other things that scare you?), and in the body. For example when people get phantom pain in limbs that they no longer have. This too is what makes trauma therapy so difficult. Often we can work through some of the external triggers by keeping calm while in the face of traumatic memories, but have you noticed it doesn’t seem to fully work? We still react or get bodily reactions. Research has shown that for people to fully heal from trauma, we need to resolve the memories in both the brain and the body.
Emerging research suggests that until both the body and mind memories are worked on, sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, emotion and bodily sensation will connect memories through a web of other memories back to the original traumatic memory causing the fight/flight/freeze response. Thus triggers are so complicated and difficult to get a handle on. The brain continues to be such a mystery, but we are unlocking the secrets of the brain one step at a time. We are learning so much more about the brain every day. Someday, we will be able to help those that have PTSD before it ruins their lives and even someday prevent PTSD from occurring at all.
Take a look at this video from PBS about PTSD as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2hvO5MGgko
What have your experiences with trauma therapy been? Are you still trying to find the right therapy to get your life back on track? Contact me to locate a therapist in your area that can provide you with safe and evidenced based trauma therapy. 860-501-9767; 941-462-4807; firstname.lastname@example.org