When we feel traumatized, we might think the experience is stored in your 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.