Trauma and Triggers

tt1“The imprint of trauma is in the limbic system and in the brainstem: in our animal brains, not our thinking brains” van der Kolk 2004

What that means is that the limbic system is a part of the brain where we process our emotions and senses, not where we process our speaking.  It’s considered part of the brain that is connected to instinct and survival (animal brain) and has been part of our evolution since the beginning.  What that also means for many people is that trauma experiences and memories are typically directly connected to our senses and our emotions.  To take it one step further, this also means that they are typically NOT something easily accessed through language for processing or explanations.  Talking about trauma experiences doesn’t necessarily ‘touch’ the parts of the brain that need healing.

Simple things that are relatively considered ‘safe’ like hand gestures, the expression on your face, how you may tt2narrow your eyes (regardless of why you did that) or raise your eyebrow even; the set of your shoulders, the tone of your voice, the clothing you are wearing, the perfume or cologne you may have on can all set something off in the limbic system of someone who is traumatized that creates a fight, flight or freeze response.  This can be a source of a lot of confusion and stress for both the traumatized individual and the folks around them.  A traumatized person can seem to be okay but then suddenly their brain is screaming at them – run away, run away – and they don’t necessarily know why.  The person who is trying to engage with them is equally confused.  They didn’t do anything as far as they know to set something off.  What on earth is going on?

There are a whole slew of things that can happen with someone who is experiencing a trauma response.  They may suddenly feel a sense of helplessness that comes across as an inability or unwillingness to take care of themselves.

They may become enraged, angry or present as ‘on edge’ with little to no understanding of why.


They may have a much lower threshold for frustration.  When you are experiencing anxiety that is constant and seemingly without ‘reason’, becoming easily frustrated makes a lot of sense because  quite frankly, you’re already over half way there!

They may become quick to avoid things, become numb, suddenly appear to be daydreaming or far away like they’re not paying attention or spaced out in some way.

Woman lounging in underwear

They may experience overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety.

They may have an overwhelming sense of despair.

Because individuals don’t always know what is happening or what is going on, it can be difficult to figure out an effective or appropriate way to deal with this.



A traumatic response that happens after the trauma is long over is often tied to what we call a ‘trigger’.  A trigger is exactly like it sounds.  It is an event or some kind of sensory input that reminds the limbic system in the brain of the traumatic experience(s) and triggers or sets off that fight, flight or freeze response mentioned above.  The list of possible reactions can start happening and things can become confusing, overwhelming and difficult very quickly.

Part of learning how to deal with and recover from traumatic experiences often includes understanding triggers and how to manage them.  What I find is that many people don’t know where to start or what a trigger is or could be or how to even begin to identify them.  The follow list are possibilities or things that are considered common triggers for people who have been traumatized.

  • reminder of past events; any reminder.
  • conflict in a current relationship where you feel threatened or attacked on some level.
  • a sense of a lack of power or control in your current situation or relationship
  • someone insulting you or putting you down
  • someone who doesn’t believe you
  • feeling vulnerable
  • feeling rejected by another person(s)
  • a feeling of loneliness and/ or a sudden separation
  • a sudden loss
  • sudden changes to your regular routine
  • loud or sudden noises
  • too much stimulation to your senses at once
  • not able to get to an exit (in a room or location where your ability to get to the exit is blocked)




This is not an exclusive list as a person’s experiences are often unique and as such, may have unique aspects to the various triggers that could possibly exist.  If you are experiencing issues related to trauma, please know that there is help out there.  For more information, please contact your local Victim Services organization and they should assist you in access trauma informed services in your region.





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