We’ve been talking a lot about triggers. But what do triggers do? Why is there so much talk about “trigger warnings” and learning how to avoid or deal with triggers? If triggers remind you of something, whether bad, good, or indifferent, what’s the big deal with triggers regarding negative or traumatic memories?
First, let’s back up a step. Your brain stores memories in the hippocampus as all five senses as well as emotion and body sensations. Most of us have been burned to some degree, even if just a sunburn. Can you remember what that bad sunburn or other burn you received felt like? Maybe not to the extent it hurt when you first received it but you can still remember it, right? When your hippocampus identifies something in your current environment as a threat to either your physical or psychological well-being that you’ve experienced before in some manner (stories you’ve heard passed down the generations at home, something you saw in the news, etc), even if the current experience isn’t bad, the hippocampus connects the current situation to the past experience and alerts the brain’s alarm system (the amygdala) which immediately sends out the signal to put you in fight/flight/freeze response to keep you safe. Shortly thereafter, your frontal cortex surveys the current situation to determine if you are really in danger. It doesn’t matter if you’re not, the amygdala has already done its job. Fight/flight/freeze is an immediate response and the cortisol (stress hormone) that is now circulating throughout your body doesn’t reabsorb as quickly as it is released.
Second, the brain tries to and wants to heal, just like the skin. When the skin has a splinter, it may get hot, red, inflamed, and infected as it tries to heal. It may even need the help of tweezers to get rid of the splinter. Then the skin can heal. When there is an injury to the brain stemming from a past experience, the brain in essence has a splinter. It attempts over and over to make sense of and heal the memory. Sometimes the brain is able to do this on its own. For example, have you ever done something you regret, then thought about it for hours afterwards? Your brain is working on figuring out what happened and what to do with that event. When it no longer bothers you to such an extreme degree, your brain filed it appropriately. However, other times your brain just can’t figure out how to make sense of an event. This is when the memory becomes “stuck” like the splinter that needs help to heal.
Getting back to the original question: Why are triggers so bad? Triggers are simply a reminder of an event. Triggers can be something seen, smelled, heard, tasted, physically felt, or emotionally felt. When you smell a pumpkin spice candle for example, you may be “triggered” to remember Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, in this case, being a positive experience just makes you feel happy and that “trigger” isn’t a big deal. When triggered by something that reminds you of a negative or scary memory that was not healed in your brain, it’s almost like pushing down on that splinter in your skin that is currently inflamed and infected. It hurts immensely. It brings back and almost feels like it intensifies that pain from the splinter. It makes it throb and you may even feel pain throughout the body part the splinter is in (your whole hand may start to hurt for example). When you are triggered by something not healed in the brain, the same reaction happens…intense pain. Because the memory wasn’t filed away as understood, by pushing that splinter, it brings back the memory just as it was when it happened…with all the physical and emotional sensations experienced in the initial traumatic event. This is a flashback.
Flashbacks are intense memories including all of the senses and emotions of a past experience as if that event is happening now. I’m sure we can all think of a memory we’d love to bring back with that intensity (the day you became a parent or grandparent, your favorite vacation, graduation day, the list goes on), but reliving the worst part of your life over and over is not thrilling. It is not what anyone wants to deal with. The person going through the flashback doesn’t want those flashbacks either. They don’t want to relive the worst part of their lives over and over. Sometimes they don’t even realize what caused them to have a flashback.
The big deal with triggers is since the brain’s alarm system (the amygdala) is so good at its job, you don’t have a choice with flashbacks. There is something seen, heard, smelled, tasted, physically felt or emotionally felt which the hippocampus identifies as a physical or psychological threat and alerts the alarm to ring. It is not the job of either the hippocampus or the amygdala to determine if this current “trigger” is an actual threat.
Flashbacks are real. They are not for attention. If you or a loved one is experiencing flashbacks, it is vital to understand this and to get support. Loved ones of the person going through flashbacks need support just as much as the person going through the flashbacks. I will talk more about support in another blog, but if you or a loved one is going through this, please don’t be afraid to reach out for help. https://www.sidran.org/ is one of several websites that can be a great resource. Feel free to contact me as well at 860-501-9767, 941-462-4807, or firstname.lastname@example.org for other resources.