Why can't we just let things go and leave the past in the past? In this episode, we explore why past traumatic experiences can trigger us in the present, even years after they happened.
In this episode, Janice explores that oh-so-common experience of getting triggered in the present due to past experiences of trauma, and how the activation of our fight-flight-freeze response in these situations can make it super challenging to stay calm and objective.
She also discusses that we may have explicit memories of past traumas, but also implicit ones that we aren’t aware of consciously. And she shares why it can be useful to learn how to discern between experiences where there is an actual threat to our safety, experiences where there is a valid concern but an additional layer of past wounding, and experiences where safety is there but we are unable to feel safe.
This episode is part 3 of an ongoing series on healing trauma.
*Please note that Janice is not a trauma expert or therapist, and that this series shares about her one personal experience of learning about and healing trauma
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Hey everyone, welcome back to The Soul’s Work Podcast. I’m your host, Janice Ho. I hope you’re all doing well. It is May 3, 2021, and since my last episode, I celebrated my 1-year alcohol free anniversary, which I feel super amazing about.
And we also didn't really celebrate getting to 1 year since the pandemic lockdown. At least for me, that started I think March 18, when I flew back to Canada from Mexico. And y'all, I've definitely been having some massive COVID fatigue, and doing what I can to hang in there, and maybe even sometimes to be productive and thriving and hopeful. It's a challenge sometimes. So, I hope you're all making it through okay.
So, we’ve been talking about the topic of trauma for the last couple of episodes, and today I wanted to talk about those situations we often find ourselves in, where we are triggered or activated by something into these familiar feelings of anger, or resentment, or grief, or shame, or you fill in the blank, right? that is actually reminding us of a past traumatic event, often at a very, very unconscious level.
And along with those emotions that arise, we often feel certain physical sensations, like maybe our heart starts racing, or there’s that feeling of a fire in our chest, or maybe we don’t feel very much, because our body starts to numb out a bit and shut down.
And perhaps the thoughts and then behaviours that follow as a result involve us lashing out, or shutting down, or for me, it was often reaching for the alcohol, and now that I don't have that coping mechanism, I do still have other instinctive things that I might turn to in those moments of getting activated).
And I’ve heard from so many people over the years about their own kind of sore spots, the buttons that tend to get pushed for them, the recurring relationship or family dynamics that might set them off time and time again.
And ultimately, as I mentioned, what might be underlying us being triggered into these feeling-states, and all the emotions and thoughts that come along with them, is that the current situation might be reminding us of a past traumatic event that we experienced – and that reminder is often happening at such an unconscious level that we might not make that connection.
And if that’s the case, then at least in my experience, it can be helpful to get at the root of the issue, versus just trying to change our behaviours and feelings by doing all this efforting to try and stay calm, exercise positive thinking and good communication skills.
All the things we know on an intellectual level that we “should” do, and that can be helpful of course, but if there are these very unconscious, powerful mechanisms underlying some of our triggered responses, then it might require a more comprehensive or nuanced exploration into the question many of us have, which is: How can I change this? How can I move away from constantly being triggered and having to experience the consequences of that time and time again?
Okay, so that’s today’s topic. And this is now going to be, I think, a 6-part series, at least, unless it keeps expanding, on healing trauma. And a huge reminder to please keep in mind is that this is really about my one journey learning about what is trauma, how does trauma develop and how has it been shown to affect us on a mind, body, spiritual, community level, some of which I've already talked about in the first two episodes.
So, again, today, which is Part 3 of this series, I’m going to talk about how trauma can continue affecting us in the present – specifically, why we might get triggered in our present day life because of things we experienced in the past. ?
And in the last at least three episodes of this series, I’m going to talk about the very wide-ranging impacts that trauma can have on our lives, from our physical health, our ability to manage our emotions, how we show up in relationships, and so on.
And woven into all of that, I’m going to share my personal experiences in terms of how trauma has impacted me on those levels, and more importantly, how my trauma-healing journey has helped me to address some of those impacts of trauma as well as address and heal some of my original traumas, acknowledging that this is of course always a 100% work in progress, and it’s always going to be. But this has all been a really big focus for me in my self-development journey because I've come to recognize that my experiences of trauma have been the root source of many of my later-in-life challenges.
So, a couple important notes before we dive in. As I’ve mentioned in the last two episodes, listening to someone talk about trauma can obviously bring up some stuff for folks. Maybe not, but it's absolutely not unreasonable or uncommon that uncomfortable or even overwhelming feelings, memories, might come up.
I am going to use the word “trigger” and “trauma” relatively often in this episode, even though I understand those words can sometimes in and of themselves evoke stuff for folks, because in trying to explain some of this education and provide context for what I’m discussing in a way that’s easily understandable, it’s a little bit hard to avoid. I will try to use words like activated or evoked, adverse experiences, in places where it makes sense to.
But all of that being said, please take care of yourself while you listen in, while you take in the trauma education in general, if you're exploring elsewhere. Go at your own pace. Pause this episode if you need to. There’s probably gonna be a lot of info in this one, so if you even come back to some of it on another day, that’s totally cool, and maybe even a good strategy, if that’s supportive to you.
And also, I don’t know, you might also find some empowerment in learning about why seemingly irrational behaviours and thoughts we might experience when we’re activated by something that's connected with a past trauma, can actually have a very logical explanation. You might experience some relief from the shame we so often carry in interpreting our triggered states as something bad, as something pointing to us being broken or deficient in some way. And we’re absolutely not.
So last disclaimer before we get into is that I’m not a trauma expert or a therapist. And on that note, if things are coming up for you that you feel need to be tended to on a deeper level, that feel really hard to do alone, it might be an invitation to seek professional help, just as a side note.
So, I do share a lot of what I’ve learned from the so-called experts through books, podcasts, conferences, educational videos, etc. about trauma. But when I offer this information here, please keep in mind that it’s still coming from the perspective of my one experience and learning of trauma. Right? So much of it has been coloured by my personal experiences of trauma, specifically developmental and complex trauma, intergenerational trauma, and what I have found to be helpful for my specific journey.
So, there might be certain kinds of information or schools of thought, or specific frameworks, or even types of so-called experts, that I have tended to be drawn to and therefore learned from, and therefore will talk about more so on this podcast. But there might also be other perspectives and people who have really valuable stuff to teach around trauma, and that might be missing or not as much of a focus in what I share in this series.
Alright, hopefully you have listened to the first two parts in this series, especially the last episode, because I think it’s going to help make what I talk about today a lot more sense. But if you’re ready, let’s dive in.
Okay, the definition of trauma I’ve been using in this series – because trauma has absolutely been defined in many different ways – says that experiencing trauma involves something that happened in the past that created a great amount of stress, more than we had the capacity to cope with at the time.
And continuing with the definition, when we’re triggered by something that happens in the present that reminds us of that past event – and as I mentioned, that reminder can be at such an unconscious level, it often is – it can then evoke painful or difficult emotions and/or physical sensations.
And I’ve learned that oftentimes it really is the physical sensations that we feel first, which then translate into emotions that we feel, which then move up to forming our thoughts – so, this bottom-up process. And it can go in the reverse as well, so top-down from thoughts to emotions to sensations.
And this, in turn, can lead to things like negative beliefs, obsessions, compulsions, addictions, and so on, and I also want to add physical illness. And that ultimately, we end up separating or splitting from our authentic selves. And to that, I also want to add that it’s not just about a disconnection from ourselves, but also from others, right? Including people we’re in relationship, of course, but also things like our connection to the environment and to our communities.
So, that might be a lot to digest, and in the next few episodes, I’ll get more into those various impacts of trauma – acknowledging that that is not at all a comprehensive list. But for now, I wanted to just focus on the part about:
Why do we get triggered in the present by certain things that remind us, often at that unconscious level, of events we experienced as traumatic in the past?
Why can’t we just let go of things already? Why can’t we just leave the past in the past, where we believe it belongs?
And why can’t we better control our reactions or not react so strongly or emotionally when we kinda know a situation doesn’t actually warrant our level of emotional response?
And sometimes, I think we may not be aware of that, but the way we feel the pain of it is often when we find ourselves in ongoing conflict in a relationship, or we're turning to self-harming behaviours perhaps – and I think that can sometimes clue us into at least a general sense that something's not working here.
So, trauma basic #5, continuing with this very non-official list – I just like to be organized – is essentially what we've already alluded to, which is that when an external or internal stimulus reminds us of an original trauma, we then re-experience the same overwhelming feeling-states we went through during that original trauma.
And that description is from the book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker. And in terms of what might be those external or internal triggers that set us off, he talks a out how it’s so wide-ranging. It could be a person, a place, an event, a tone of voice, our own internal critic, it could be a particular smell, and so on.
So, to give an example, something that has come up as a trigger for me time and time again in the past is that when I'm in a relationship, especially one in which I don't feel a secure attachment to the person – like, for example, there's a lot of inconsistency in the person's behaviour toward me – and my partner goes out, say they’re out for the night with friends, and I’m trying to get a hold of them, and they don't message me back for what feels like a long time to me. And if I’m already in an activated state, half an hour might feel like an hour in that situation.
If I don’t feel secure in that relationship, and I’m confronted with this situation, that might evoke these old abandonment traumas that I've experienced as a child, one of which ... and there was a series of different events that occurred in my childhood, but I'll talk about just one ...
So, when I was really young, I remember my dad would often go out really late at night, but my mom wouldn’t know exactly where he was. And I would see her on the phone calling around various places he tended to go to, to basically look for him, to ask if he was there. And I’m sure that as a young girl, I experienced a really deep sense of unsafety in my body watching my mom on the phone. I'm sure I was noticing and sensing her reaction – likely an anxious reaction, understandably.
And also, I’d be seeing that my dad wasn’t there in our home at a time I instinctively knew he should have been. And there was likely a sense of panic or threat being kicked into gear, being in that very uncertain situation, which would have been my fight-flight-freeze response being activated, as we talked about in the last episode.
And that survival/stress response ultimately never really got resolved for me back then. These things that were happening in my family weren’t talked about. My feelings around the whole experience weren't tended to in perhaps the way I needed as a young child to be able to return to a sense of safety both in my home and in my body.
And so, when something in the present reminds me of that past experience, and associated experiences, it’s not like I’m explicitly thinking about the things that happened with my dad and within my family per se, but the triggering response happens at such a subconscious level, that I re-experience the associated emotions as well as the physical sensations – so, the racing heart, the twist in my stomach – that I’m sure I experienced during the original trauma.
Now, I don’t explicitly remember every single thing that happened or that I felt around those experiences, because it was a long time ago. But first off, sometimes I’ve been able to identify what might have been an early trauma that’s now causing a present-day situation to have that emotional charge behind it through visualizations that I’ve been guided through by my therapist, for example.
Because oftentimes, through those kinds of exercises, we can keep tracing back to earlier and earlier memories when we felt those similar sensations and feelings of hopelessness or abandonment or whatever is coming for us in the present.
And I do think it’s often necessary to take that kind of exploration with the guidance of a professional, and at a time when we feel resourced enough within ourselves, so that thinking back to past traumas like that doesn’t overwhelm us in a way that could actually be re-traumatizing.
And in addition to that, getting educated on what children need on a developmental level, has really helped in clarifying that a lot of things I know happened in my past that I once regarded as, “Oh, that was just life, wasn’t it?” – because that was my norm, and I didn’t know anything else – probably contributed to me developing a lack of secure attachment, a decreased sense of safety in the world, not knowing how to regulate my emotions and self-soothe if I needed to.
And it’s also been helpful to learn about how when these biologically based developmental needs that all humans have – such as emotional attunement, connection, etc. – haven’t really been met, that that can often result in predictable outcomes many years later with respect to the way that we see ourselves, the kinds of challenges we might tend to face in relationships, even the types of physical illnesses that might arise.
So, in doing these different exploratory pieces of my past adverse experiences, as well as learning about my family history and intergenerational trauma, has helped me to form a more coherent picture of what happened.
And maybe in another episode we can explore this question of how important is that, right? How important is it to know what happened, and to be able to make an explicit connection between getting activated in the present and what past experience is contributing to that?
Two side notes before we keep going. One, and I've said this before, I love my parents dearly. I actually don't hold any blame or resentment toward them for any of these things that I’m mentioning. But I think it can be important sometimes to just acknowledge that even if there isn't blame – even if there were never malicious intentions, even if we really love our parents, and know at a deep level that they do love us as well, if that's our experience – that there can still be an impact.
And the important part about all of this, for me, is not dwelling on what my parents did or did not do, but about how certain experiences I’ve had in life ended up impacting me so that I'm still being affected by it in the present. And how do I use that awareness as part of my process of unlearning some of these ongoing patterns, so that I can move toward all of the things I'm sure we all want to feel, like greater connection and joy and being at peace and at ease in our bodies and relationships? So, that’s really the focus for me.
And the second side note before we move on, is that I wanted to mention this reminder I come across more and more in the trauma education, which is that when we experienced these types of adversities in our lives, especially as children, which is where it so often starts, we did the best we could to get through and survive those experiences, given the capacities we had.
So, this isn’t about perceiving ourselves and our reactions as somehow dysfunctional or wrong. Our bodies actually did exactly what they needed to do to survive, to not let that stress in our system completely overwhelm and crush us.
And of course, over time, those kinds of survival strategies that we used to adapt to difficult situations can often be what then creates more disconnection from ourselves, and disconnection from others. So, yes, we want to look at that too. But at the same time, I have found it helpful in my journey to honour that those protective parts of me were there during the times I really had no other way to cope.
And so, coming back to the present-day: In my case, those past unresolved traumas have definitely impacted on my adult relationships. Because I have found myself in situations where I’ve been triggered by things that probably didn’t warrant the level of panic and anxiety, etc., that would come up for me. But because there were all of these deeply ingrained, unconscious processes being activated, it was very hard to not interpret what might be an innocent situation as, holy shit, there's something really wrong here.
And so, trauma basic #6 basically goes back to what we talked about in the last episode, which is that when our fight-flight-freeze response becomes activated – in this case, by whatever external or internal stimulus evoked that in us – the rational part of our brain goes offline, right? Or it gets bypassed when the more primitive parts of our brain are making those split-second decisions of how to respond to the threat being perceived by our nervous system.
And so, it can be really hard to access the ability in those moments to think on a “higher” level, to maybe work through the situation in a really calm, well-thought out way. Which speaks to the whole, why can’t we just let it go? Why can’t we just think positively and remind ourselves that this is just about the past, so I shouldn’t be acting or feeling this way now.
And when we’re in that activated state, we’re also taken out of the present, where we might be able to handle the situation in a more grounded, empowered, objective way, and instead we’re almost taken back into the past and we’ll often find ourselves reacting from that place – from our wounded, child selves.
So, diving a bit more into how the instinctual parts of our brain kind of take over in these situations, well, in general there’s a process called pattern-matching that happens in the brain, where whenever we have a new experience, “the brain searches for a match between the incoming pattern of neuronal activity and patterns already stored in memory” – that’s from the book Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre.
So, basically, our brains are perceiving what’s happening in the here and now – in this case, the triggering event – through comparing it with things that have happened in the past and are stored in our memory. And this pattern-matching happens super quickly – because it’s part of our biological mechanism that we process the things we’re experiencing really efficiently, to understand really quickly what they mean, because that timing could make the difference between survival and death, right? Is this an enemy? Is this a threatening situation? How do we react?
So, it's particularly when we’re in that fight-flight mode, that our system isn’t slowing down enough for us to really look at the finer details of the present situation. Is this really the same thing as that past event that I experienced as threatening? Maybe it’s not, even though at a quick glance they seem and feel really similar. Maybe I’m actually safe right now. Let me take a few minutes to pause, get curious and really understand the situation.
But if all of this is happening at warp speed because our autonomic nervous system is doing what it’s made to do to protect us in situations where it feels threatened, then our brains are going to just make the best match it can in that split second, which might sacrifice on some accuracy.
And by the way, I do think there absolutely can be powerful thinking techniques that take down a more top-down approach, where we start with our thoughts – maybe they’re what we call "negative" thoughts, or when we’re catastrophizing about something – and we work through challenging those thoughts and reframing and all of these things, so that we then calm down our heart rate, we get back to regulation, because we’ve determined that there really isn’t a threat here. And that’s stuff like CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy.
I think in some cases, that can be helpful. And also, I do think that if you are really flooded with these emotions and physical sensations, it is probably going to be way harder to access those more cognitive tools and use them to move through that situation. And it’s been helpful for me to identify recurring patterns where I just can’t seem to “think my way out of” highly emotional and activating situations I come across again and again, and then to explore other avenues for dealing with that, if I want to see some change, right?
Okay, back to what’s happening in the body when we’re being triggered or activated, or whatever term you’d like to use. I mentioned that I tend to feel very overwhelmed with my emotions, I get the heart racing, feelings of anxiety, or maybe a lot of sadness and grief, etc. But I’ve also seen other people more so shut down when they’re in an activated state. They might physically withdraw from the situation, or they’re still physically present, but you can kind of tell they’re blanked out a bit. And sometimes later I’ll hear them say things like, they literally couldn’t form a sentence in that moment.
And all of that also makes sense from this nervous system perspective. So in those cases, being triggered might not actually look or even feel to the person like they’re sort of drowning in their emotions. They might actually feel more shutdown and dissociated, because that’s the survival strategy they learned to protect themselves from getting overwhelmed. And they might even truly believe that they’re fine, because they’re not being flooded by really intense emotions, and to them, they might actually feel calm in one sense.
But oftentimes, underneath everything, there can still actually be a lot of activation happening in the nervous system. And things like the fact that they might not be able to access that ability to have a calm, open, well thought-out conversation can be a sign that they might actually be triggered by something, and on a nervous system level, in a state of, “This situation feels dangerous or unsafe for me. I’m going to disconnect from it so I don’t get overwhelmed.”
And that, too, can create disconnection in a relationship, say, when the other person is wanting to connect and be in conversation and work through an issue, but they’re getting the wall up or maybe the person’s withdrawing completely from interacting.
So, let's take a pause here, because I know I've said a lot, and also made some little detours here and there in the conversation. And hopefully, you've been taking any pauses you've needed to along the way.
But just to recap a little bit, trauma basic #5 was that sometimes our past traumatic experiences can get evoked in present day situations, when some kind of triggering stimulus reminds us of that past trauma.
And trauma basic #6 is that because we’re thrown back into that fight-flight-freeze response when we’re triggered, we often in those moments instinctively turn to whatever survival strategies or perhaps coping mechanisms we developed in order to adapt to and survive the original traumatic experience. And it can be really hard to access our higher-thinking abilities to handle the situation in a more well-thought out way.
And so, in continuing to talk about having this awareness where we’re able to connect maybe some of our past traumas with present-day situations where those old wounds are getting evoked, trauma basic #7 is that we might remember the past trauma explicitly, where there’s a clearly definable event that we can kind of conjure up and picture in our minds if we think back to it, like the way I can about watching my mom on the phone, my dad not being there late at night. But we can also remember traumatic experiences implicitly, where it’s more the emotional or somatic memory of a traumatic event that gets stored in our body, in our cells.
And there’s a few different aspects I’ve learned regarding this implicit memory of trauma. So for one, when we’re really, really young, we haven’t even developed the capacity for forming explicit memories. just watched an amazing webinar with Dr. Aline LaPierre called “Introduction to Somatic Psychotherapy and Embodied Communication,” where she said that our brain is not ready to lay down explicit memories until we are 2–3 years old – when the hippocampus, a structure in our brain that is critical for explicit memory storage, begins to mature.
And I’ve also read that even though we might start forming that ability to develop and store explicit memories, many of our memories in our first few years of life – I’ve read in one article it can be up to age 7 – that many of our memories are still implicit ones. And I think maybe the important thing here is less about the exact age, but that just because we don’t remember something as an explicit memory in our consciousness, it doesn’t mean we haven’t still stored that memory somehow – because we have. We still hold those memories, and the emotional imprint of those events, within our bodies.
The second thing about implicit memory that I’ve learned is that aside from just our ability developmentally/biologically to form explicit memories, even when we’re older and when we’re adults, we might still not have a complete remembering on a conscious level of traumatic experiences we went through. And that’s because it’s not uncommon for folks to dissociate during such events – so we might disconnect from our bodies, from the experience, because that’s what we may have needed to do to protect ourselves to survive it, as I've mentioned earlier.
And so, if you dive a little bit more into this trauma ed, you’re probably gonna come across these various pieces about memory and how it relates to trauma. Barbara Allyn, a trauma therapist and founder of Tribal Theory – I just watched a talk of hers recently – spoke about how there can be memory fragmentation that occurs during our experiencing of trauma, where only a few pieces of information coming in during the event stay in the frontal lobe, where our cognition is located, and the rest go into the other parts of the brain, i.e., the senses.
And so, in those cases, we might not be able to recount details of what happened, in what order. So, in the case of, say, a sexual assault, it's not helpful for a detective to start off by asking the assault survivor those types of questions – she trains police on this, so she brought this up as an example – but some of the sensory experiences around the experience may be remembered, like a certain smell, certain noises, etc.
And the book Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy by Susan McConnell also says some similar things about why we might not have a coherent narrative about some of our traumatic experiences. And she says that as the body story becomes witnessed through perhaps working with a therapist, other aspects might be restored, like the emotional or cognitive or visual aspects. And they might not.
But I really love this post from my therapist and her business partner’s amazing Instagram account @traumaawarecare. That these implicit memories associated with trauma might be unconscious; they might be somatic, so felt in our bodies; they might be emotional. And that it can be challenging to not explicitly remember or clearly understand what it is that we’re getting triggered about. But as they say in this post, “Here, in this space, I believe your sense of what happened to you. You don’t need to prove anything. Whatever you feel, regardless of what you remember - is enough.”
One more thing I’ll say around this topic of potentially not having a clear idea of why we might be getting triggered, is to share about something that was highly activating for me recently, which were the murders of the six Asian women that happened in Atlanta, and all of the discussion and outcry that followed on social media, in the news, around the racism and misogyny involved in the murders.
And that whole thing really did a number on me. My body went into shutdown for a couple days, then I finally exploded into tears and anger when I was talking about it with a friend and was finally able to release some of what I was feeling. I experienced familiar feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness.
And so, the murders themselves were obviously a terrible tragedy and traumatic in and of themselves for a lot of folks. But I knew that my reaction to them was also connected to my own past traumatic events related to racism and misogyny.
And it would be hard to pinpoint every explicit event or even one original traumatic event that I was being activated by, but again, the racism, sexism, the internalized oppression I’ve experienced for many, many years in identifying as an Asian woman, plus all of the intergenerational trauma and historical trauma that has been experience by my ancestors, other Asian women historically, in the present, around acts of racism or misogyny that have been perpetrated against them, all of that came into play.
And so that’s another example of how when we’re in that activated state due to past stuff, it can have all of these very complex layers that are sometimes hard to describe, hard to write out on paper, but is very much felt, and is very much a valid part of our experience.
And this might be a good moment for a little pause. Certain things that are grounding for me may not work as well for others, and vice versa, so I won't necessarily suggest anything specific here. But I'll share one of my practices, which is just looking out my cabin window and taking in the sight of the vibrant green grass, seeing the leaves fluttering in the breeze, listening to the birds chirp. And there's this rooster that's like screeching and totally destroying the ambience.
Alright, so if you're ready, let’s go into the last part of this episode. So I wanted to talk about different types of experiences where we might experience this kind of triggering or activation. And these types of experiences are just really rough categories I’ve thought about personally to organize my own thoughts.
So, this is a very personal-to-me trauma basic #8 – that something I have found to be important for my personal journey is learning how to better discern between, one, experiences that might be an actual threat to my safety – whether it’s my physical, emotional, psychological safety – and where I’m activated because my body is very accurately identifying that this is a threat and we need to resolve it; and two, experiences that are also a valid source of concern – maybe there’s conflict in a relationship, or something that very understandably would bring up difficult emotions for me, for example, enduring this pandemic – but if there’s a past trauma being kind of poked at, at the same time, then I might end up reacting to the current situation more so from a place of wounding, there might be this added layer to it; and then, three, experiences where there’s actually safety there, there is no real threat, but I’ve been reminded of some past trauma at that very unconscious level by whatever’s happening, and so my survival response kicks in and I feel like there’s an emergency situation.
So, for me, being able to discern those different types of situations has been helped by a few things. For one, noticing patterns on a behavioural level can sometimes be useful, when we notice that we keep getting into the same blowout with our partner or family member over and over again, same thing keeps setting us off, and we keep having the same reactions, same arguments, that just never seem to get resolved, and there is that sense of our old wounds being activated, and us coming at the situation with more of that child self perspective.
And it depends, it’s very individual, but that can be a hint for me that maybe there’s something deeper that’s underlying this ongoing dynamic. Versus, let's say, simply interpreting it as, this person is just infuriating to me, and they piss me off. Maybe they do, and maybe at the same time there are things we can explore on a deeper level our end.
Also, I have found that tuning into my experience of what I feel internally, in terms of the physical sensations that might come up for me, the emotional experience I’m having, around various activating situations, can be really helpful. And so, why is that?
So, for me, the more I’ve come to familiarize myself with what it feels like when, say, my abandonment wound has been evoked, or when I’m going into what I call my “apathy for life” state, where there’s a lot of hopelessness, or when my anxiousness part is running the show, then the easier it is for me to place right away, however different the details of the situation may be, that: “Oh, some old stuff is coming up for me here. I know what this fire in my chest and the insecurity and anger I’m feeling mean. I know what this depressed feeling and sense of dread and hopelessness mean.”
And in having worked on some of these things, I’ve learned what works to support me in moving through these various situations so I don’t totally shut down or get overwhelmed by the experience. And I’ll talk more about this stuff in the next episode.
But lastly, with respect to the third kind of experience where we become triggered, and there’s actually safety there, one thing that can speak to some people’s experience with this is that there can be a misalignment that occurs through trauma, where when folks have experienced ongoing adversity and chronic stress, we might end up staying in what is called a defensive-orienting response.
Which in and of itself is a totally healthy response when we’re, say, startled by something and our body goes really alert – we’re scanning the environment, making sure all is good, and then if it is, we return to more of an exploratory-orienting response where we're at ease, in connection, enjoying life. By the way, this is all stuff I’ve learned from the book Healing Developmental Trauma, and from Irene Lyon’s work, among others.
But it’s when we get stuck in that defensive-orienting response, because our nervous system is just constantly in that survival response mode, that our default state can then become hypervigilance, where now we’re continuously scanning the environment for danger, even when the threat is no longer present.
And if we do become hypervigilant in this way – which I have most definitely experienced, and I'm still unlearning that – then we might often inaccurately perceive things as threatening to our safety when they’re actually not. It’s really easy for small things to set off our alarm bells when our nervous system is already poised for danger and there’s this ongoing sense that something is wrong. Like, I said, this can be one explanation, it’s so individual.
But if that’s something that we’ve experienced, it can obviously impact our mental health, our physical health, our ability to establish connection with others and with ourselves. And so part of healing trauma, from what I’ve experienced and also learned about from trauma educators, is often about reestablishing a more accurate internal compass. So that we can make that discernment of when something is actually safe, so we can then be more at ease and in connection – which is what ultimately brings joy into our lives and makes us feel alive, right?
But also to be able to discern when, for example, we are feeling anger, when it's coming from a wounded place versus a really grounded and empowered place. So that we're able to know when we need to stand up for ourselves or to get the fuck out, when our boundaries are being violated, to know when there is someone we're interacting with who might actually be threatening to our safety, whether physically or emotionally or otherwise. And that speaks to how, in addition to some folks becoming very hypervigilant, others can become more hypovigilant, where there's actually a decreased awareness of threat due to trauma.
And I want to wrap things up here by saying that I really believe that these are all things we can work on. I don’t always know if “work on” is the best term to use, but for lack of a better term, I believe we can work toward taking the emotional edge off of some of those triggers so either they’re not triggers anymore, or they activate us less – whether in intensity and/or frequency.
We can work toward recognizing, sensing, when we might be starting to cross that line toward becoming fully activated before it gets really overwhelming and it is way harder to access our ability to slow down, and yes access our rational mind to help us out in working through a situation more effectively, if using our cognition is what would help in that situation.
And as part of all of that, I really believe we can develop certain capacities within ourselves, we can learn certain practices and tools, to be able to navigate some of those activating situations in a way that’s really supportive for us. And what that is, is again, super individual. Some things work for some people, and other things work for others.
And over the next couple episodes, I'm going to share just my one personal experience, some of my process and practices that have helped in, one, healing some of my past traumas so that they don't hold as much of that emotional charge, and, two, things that have helped me get to a more resourced place where I'm able to move through some of those activating situations that still absolutely arise in my life, but be with them and move through them in a more resilient way.
And personally, I don’t believe in a magic cure, I don’t believe there’s an end destination where I get to some ultimate Zen-like state where nothing ever triggers me again. But I can now sit with the discomfort of that. And it’s partly because I know when shit comes up, I am in a better equipped place to not fall into despair and distress, and instead I’m able to make those little steps toward breaking some of the old patterns that have ultimately not served me.
So, I hope this was useful for y’all. I hope you took care of yourself while listening in, and I hope you take some time after this to do whatever feels supportive for you to maybe come back to a place of grounding if you found at the end of it that you were a bit pulled out of the present. I will do my best to not wait another six weeks, or however long it’s been, to publish the next episode.
And in the meantime, you can connect with me on Instagram @janicehoimages and @natureimmersed. I”m on Facebook @janicehocreative. And you can find all the show notes and podcast episodes at https://www.thesoulsworkpodcast.com/, as well as on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and other podcast players.
Thanks so much for being here, y’all. I appreciate you so much. Take care until next time. Lots of love and self-love.