When we feel traumatized, we might think the experience is stored in our memory like a story. It’s not. Instead, traumatic experiences are stored by the brain as fragments of sensory input: smells, sights, sounds, touches, and tastes. These stored memory fragments become “emotional triggers” to alert us to danger or threats in the future.
Our triggers are highly sensitive and reactive, activated by our environment or someone’s behavior or words. We might quietly emotionally withdraw, or we may react intensely or aggressively. When we become emotionally triggered, we automatically react without thought, and that’s why there is often a sense of losing control. Whether we go quiet or lose our temper, either way, it’s because we’re defending ourselves against a perceived threat, whether it’s real or not.
Emotional triggers are wounds that haven’t healed. For example, a friend makes a casual remark, and you suddenly snap back with a cutting and intentionally hurtful remark. You don’t know what came over you. You weren’t in a bad mood or feeling angry, but immediately as the comment was made, you instinctively reacted swiftly and defensively to defend yourself. It was as if a “switch” had been flipped. You instinctively understand that you wounded and confused your friend, but you don’t know why you acted this way. Later, after you’ve taken time to reflect on and process what happened, you realize that at the moment you heard the comment, you instantly felt something that triggered your response. Maybe you felt confused, self-doubtful, unimportant, dismissed, or disrespected. In effect, you felt the need to defend or protect yourself without thought or question.
You also recognize that the remark was not said to intentionally hurt you, and yet you deliberately reacted viciously with a desire to inflict pain. So you decide to apologize to your friend. You understood now that the remark was one of your triggers, and your triggers are your responsibility.
When we become triggered because of PTSD or C-PTSD, it becomes challenging to navigate our daily lives and relationships.
What’s the Difference?
Let’s talk about the differences between PTSD and C-PTSD.
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a trauma and stress-related disorder. The symptoms of PTSD are stress-related coping mechanisms called “triggers,” which are associated with hypervigilance. (Lanius et al. 2010). These symptoms are often combined with non-anxiety symptoms such as angry outbursts, self-destructive behavior, flashbacks, and nightmares, and they include physiological sensations like nausea or sudden rapid heartbeat.
C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a relatively new term. It does not have its own diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5.) Many mental health practitioners would like C-PTSD to have a separate diagnostic standard from those of PTSD. A possible indicator that this change may be forthcoming is that PTSD was removed from the “anxiety disorders” category and added to a brand new one called “trauma and stress-related disorders.” (Gattuso, R. 2018). So, maybe in version 6, we’ll see C-PTSD included as a separate disorder within the new “trauma and stress-related disorders” category.
People who have C-PTSD experience PTSD symptoms, but they also suffer from additional symptoms such as:
- feeling shame or guilt
- feeling responsible for the abuse
- difficulty controlling emotions
- episodes of losing attention and focus (dissociation)
- physical symptoms like headaches, dizziness, chest pains, and stomach aches
- isolation from friends and family
- relationship difficulties
- destructive or risky behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse
- suicidal thoughts
- unnecessary worrying
- adrenal burnout
- cognitive dissonance
- chronic inflammatory disorders
- mental exhaustion
- various forms of anxiety
- loss of pleasure
- black-and-white thinking
- digestive disturbances
- weight gain or loss
Healing your triggers means getting to know your triggers better. We can never know all of our triggers because we’re usually not aware of them until they happen. Triggers are created by consistency and repetition, so we develop new ones throughout life because we’re continually partaking in new life experiences. Once you have an idea of what your triggers are, you can form appropriate responses to them and have them ready for the next time. You can also replace your triggers by questioning their validity. Learn more about discovering and controlling your triggers here and here.
Survivors of complex trauma often have difficulty forming attachments with others. It makes sense that the treatment process for C-PTSD includes learning ways to strengthen the ability to feel attached to others while at the same time feeling safe, secure, and loved. Learning to do this is “an extremely difficult process,” but not impossible. (Franco, F. 2018).
An unfulfilled longing for connection can also cause deep-seated loneliness, which may further contribute to developing more symptoms. Depression and risky or self-destructive behaviors are often attributed to lacking meaningful emotional connection.
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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