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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For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.