This is How Trauma Changes Your Brain
Here’s why you feel easily triggered, and what to do to alleviate your reactivity.
When we feel triggered by a situation, smell or even by another person’s traits, we may feel as if our world is caving in and suffocating us.
Good Therapy explains:
“A trigger is a reminder of a past trauma. This reminder can cause a person to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or panic."
The sensations we experience in the moment feel real. They’re felt everywhere in our body, and these triggers can send us into inconsolable states.
I was part of a wellbeing program in a girls prison a few years ago, and I recall a young woman who got accused of stealing by another inmate.
This accusation was so triggering for this poor girl, that she fell to the ground crying and screaming “I’m not a fucking thief!”
The other girls laughed at her until the prison officer took her away to her room. On the outside, people don’t understand these reactions.
Here’s the science behind feeling triggered.
Our Brains On Trauma
I lived with PTSD for years. I used to flip my lid over and felt highly strung most of the time.
When we live this way for so long, it can feel like this is who we are as a person.
When we’ve experienced trauma, our brains look different to non-traumatised brains in 3 ways:
Pre-frontal cortex — This is our thinking centre, it’s underactive. We may have trouble thinking clearly or making clear decisions.
Anterior cingulate cortex — This is our emotion regulation centre, it’s also underactive. We may have trouble regulating our emotions when we feel triggered.
Amygdala — This is our fear centre, and it’s overactivated. We’re on high alert and scanning for danger, being switched on like this is exhausting.
With our amygdala on edge, you feel jittery and easily startled. Living in a state of fear can cause chronic stress and affect our sleep.
Amygdala hijacking is “an immediate and intense emotional reaction that’s out of proportion to the situation,” states Arlin Cuncic.
A perfect example is the girl in prison. The other girls thought she was acting irrationally, but to her, it felt like a threatening experience.
When we’re on high alert with our overactive amygdala, we may look for subtle and familiar changes around us that feel unsafe.
Our brains perceived the threat as real, even if it’s not.
People, smells, sounds, touch or taste, can trigger us. I felt highly sensitive to people’s mood changes that it’d make me want to cry if they appeared to be angry.
Feeling triggered can also cause psychological splitting in some people.
Splitting is a defence mechanism that keeps our brain safe from experiencing further trauma or anxiety.
We may ‘split off’ and react the way we did at the time the trauma first occurred. For some, we may revert to acting like a wounded child.
I’ve worked with adult clients who would hiss or speak in a baby voice when they were triggered.
The brain will do anything to protect us from experiencing pain again.
Diane Poole Heller explains:
“You may find your awareness limited to an inner child state such that you lose your sense of being an adult and are re-experiencing an event with all the relevant sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and sensations from an earlier time.”
I experienced splitting for a long time, without knowing it, and would often react the way my teenage self did, stomping around and bubbling away inside.
Our Past Is Running Our Present
“Your thoughts and feelings come from your past memories.” — Dr Joe Dispenza
Our traumatic past drives our reactions in the present because our brain senses a familiar danger, reminding us of a similar event we may have experienced.
Most of us don’t realise our reactions are stemming from the internal, so we blame external circumstances for make us feel this way.
I recall arguing with my landlord over the phone, my body felt jittery, like someone punched me in the stomach.
I blamed him for being a jerk and making me feel angry. Looking back, I was responding to what my brain believed to be a threat.
I often experienced helplessness as a teenager, and this was highly distressing for me. I didn’t realise past trauma was driving my reactions in the present.
Neil Strauss rightly said:
“Where there’s reactivity, there’s a wound.”
So, how can we change when we don’t realise what’s driving our emotional responses?
Sometimes people struggle with change; they point the finger at others and don’t take responsibility for themselves.
Other people can increase their self-awareness and take steps towards healing.
How To Relax Your Amygdala and Rewire Your Brain
“Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time.” — Jennifer Sweeton
Here’s what I learned from my therapist a few years ago:
This is a mindfulness technique that can help us bring our awareness back to the present and reduce reactivity over time.
S: Stop what you’re doing, pause for a moment.
T: Take a breath and focus on it to bring you back into the present.
O: Observe what is happening externally and internally. Focus on what you feel or what you are doing.
P: Proceed with what you were doing, or don’t, depending on what you’ve observed within yourself.
There may be times where we feel so angry or overwhelmed that using the STOP technique may feel like the last thing we want to do.
I rolled my eyes a few times when I tried to use this technique when I felt anger bubbling up.
But each time this technique crosses our mind when we feel triggered, we’re on the right track.
Even better if we can try using the technique, we’re rewiring our brain to think differently.
Effort and persistence pays off.
Evidence shows that mindfulness meditation can shrink our amygdala and pump up our pre-frontal cortex.
“Meditation can also build new pathways to the parts of the brain responsible for traits like focus and decision-making.” — Headspace
I used a daily meditation practice to help alleviate my PTSD symptoms, and it helped reduce the crippling anxiety and nervousness I felt.
When the amygdala shrinks, we feel less on edge. And having our pre-frontal cortex thicken helps reduce anxiety, fear and stress.
Getting in touch with our inner child
Louise Hay rightly said:
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, there is a little child within who needs love and acceptance.”
Often when we have trauma, our inner child gets neglected because we’ve kept our horrible experiences stuffed down and tried to forget the past.
My therapist told me to use kinetic sand to tap into my inner child’s needs. The sensation of the sand was soothing and relaxing; it helped.
I recommend sensory tools to my clients to help with emotional regulation, and it helps calm them down and focus on being present.
Our self-talk is also essential for our wellbeing. Ask yourself this:
“Is this how I’d speak to my 5-year-old self if they were standing in front of me?”
When I first asked myself this question, it brought a tear to my eye. When we tell ourselves we’re stupid; we’re also scolding your inner child.
What are you doing to help yours feel loved?
Your Mental Illness Does Not Define You as a Person
I’d like to finish on a quote by Erman Misirlisoy, PhD:
“When we are happy or sad, we often feel it is a defining part of us rather than a fleeting emotional experience that will come and go.”
When I struggled with my mental health issues, I felt like my up and down moods were a part of who I was. I accepted that I was someone nervous or on edge.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the mental health field, we don’t say to clients “what’s wrong with you?”, we say “what happened to you?”
Emotions and mental illness do not define who you are as a person. The brain is a powerful tool, and you can change your life.
When we’re triggered by a situation, we may react in a way that seems over the top to others, but it feels real to us.
Our past trauma is running the show, and when we become aware of this, we can take steps to heal.
We can reduce our stress responses with the following:
- Using mindfulness techniques to stay grounded in the present moment.
- Meditation to help shrink our amygdala
- Tending to the needs of our inner child
- Changing our self-talk and using kinder ways to describe ourselves
And most importantly, understanding that mental illness, trauma or emotions do not define who we are.
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If you are experiencing mental health issues, please speak to a mental health professional who can help you.