Transforming Triggers (Part 2 of 3) – Flight, Fight, or Freeze

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Neurobiological Underpinnings of Triggers (Part 2 of 3)                                           As we learned from last weeks blog, triggers can evoke powerful feelings that can lead us to behave in seemingly irrational ways.  When we become triggered, owing to a fear response, we do not always have access to the executive functions that are located primarily in the prefrontal cortex.  Instead, we are rerouted to the limbic area, which provides the important function of keeping us safe from being hurt.  This part of the brain is on the watch for threat, prioritizing safety over a more lengthy and complex evaluation of the stimulus in relation to the current context in which it appears.  This limbic response to external threat generally results in behavior that fits into one of the fight, flight or freeze categories.  The behavior that results from this instant (and often unconscious) appraisal could be silence, moving away, or shouting and bickering.  The external threat can be a psychological or a physical threat.  For example you could be afraid someone is going to hit you if their anger is escalating.  Or, if a loved one is remote and unresponsive, you might be afraid that the relationship is in jeopardy.  The prefrontal cortex is responsible for, among other things, comprehending complex information, planning, interpreting social signals and grasping consequences.  These functions become overridden in the service of safety and survival when the limbic centers take the helm owing to a threatening or evocative stimulus.

How triggers develop                                                                                                     Past difficult or traumatic experiences that were not comprehended either because we were at an age whereby we didn’t have the ability to take in the meaning and context of an event, or because there was no one around to help us make sense of what was happening, become lodged in our brain in a problematic way.  Because we were not able to “make sense” of this data, it does not get integrated into the larger functioning of the brain.  Additionally, when there was no one there to understand and help sooth our distress, this too will contribute to these emotional memories getting stored in a way that can be problematic later on.  When these events are not processed, these emotional “memories” hang around in little encapsulated neural nets in the brain that get pulled up when we experience a stimulus that reminds us of the initial trauma or past difficult situations.  Once we are triggered, the brain effectively reroutes us to the limbic system, which is wired for survival purposes.  We react before we even know what we are reacting to.  Interestingly, trauma or unprocessed memories from stressful events have no time stamp, so as we experience this visceral reaction, it feels as though we are responding to the current situation rather than to the echoes of a past event.

Can we control our reactions to triggers?                                                                        Yes and no.  It is important to note that we are unable to control something we are unaware of.  By their nature, triggers are often unconscious.  The good news is there are many cues that can alert us to the possibility that we are being triggered.  If we know how to perceive these cues, then we can utilize them as signals, thus bringing them into our conscious awareness, moving us one step closer to controlling our response.  Processing troubling or painful events with someone who cares about us, is an important way of minimizing the chance of a memory becoming traumatic.  It’s not the event itself that is the problem as much as the way it’s handled, and whether one has help and support in facing this difficulty.  How we deal with it is what’s most importantTune in next week to learn some practical steps towards how we can recognize and deal with out triggers effectively.


Taking Things Personally

Silhouette on mtnCan you recount a time when you’ve been preoccupied by feeling slighted, put down, or dismissed in some way?  Have you ever ruminated over something someone said to you; feeling as though it was said against you?  Maybe it has resulted in your feeling hurt, resentful or even outraged?   How big of a space is it occupying in your mind?  How does it feel in your body while ruminating on this topic?  Is this a pleasant feeling?

Do you find yourself entering into an inner monologue in your head; putting down the person who slighted you?  Are you beginning to make a case for why you are right and the other person is wrong?  If so, do you feel slightly energized by these thoughts, or perhaps pumped up by them?  Does it make you feel better, or more “right,” by putting this person down in your head, or even out loud to others?

This kind of anger or righteous response can serve 2 purposes.  When we feel our sense of self is fractured or hurt, anger can hold us together psychologically.  It can also lead to us feeling superior, which is usually preferable to feeling put down or inferior.  Anger can hold us together (in a perverse kind of way); it can shore up our fragile sense of self.

The difficulty with the above strategy is we need to put down others to feel good.  This is a cycle that has no end.  You are engaging in a talion response: “you make me feel bad, then I put you down”…and so it goes.  Additionally, we are stuck with inflammatory thoughts running amok in our heads, afflicting our bodies with tension and negative feelings.  This not only occupies space that we could be using for more creative, productive pursuits, but it is essentially polluting our inner landscape.

One of the reasons this kind of negative thinking takes root, is that there were likely many instances at younger ages where there was no-one to turn to for comfort when you felt slighted, no one who showed they care.  When this happens repeatedly, over a long period, hurt feelings can harden into resentments and anger.  The biological brain actually creates a superhighway that bypasses vulnerability and goes straight to anger.  If we can’t  be held or supported when we’ve felt slighted, at least our anger and righteousness can nurse our wound.

Is there another way?  How do we change this inner landscape to one that is more friendly, generous and life-giving?

The next time you find yourself telling someone off in an inner dialogue or putting someone else down because you’ve been put down – Stop – look for the hurting place inside.  Attend to this place, acknowledge it, find some solace that is healthy and life-affirming.  Remember times in the past when you might have slighted someone else, or perhaps put someone down.  Entertain the possibility that this person who put you down might be talking out of his/her own place of hurting and fragility that has hardened over into anger.  Can you see this behavior as having more to do with their hurting place than with you personally?  Efforts in this direction can free up real estate inside your brain for much more productive, creative, healthy and self-affirming ways of being and thinking.

Decide whether you want to spend time nursing your wounds with angry responses or would it be more helpful to offer support to that hurting place inside so you can move out of this destructive cycle into a place that gets you in touch with your real self-worth.