Trauma, Triggers, and Healing


Today I would like to share with you a guest post from Michael Petrow. Michael is a student of Origen, a spiritual director, and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!

Do you feel exhausted lately? Or just off? I would like to take 5 minutes to reflect on triggers and trauma. I am not a specialist, but this is how I understand it, best as I can.

But first a story: I once lived in this big old drafty farm house. Because it had several fire places, it was required to have extremely top of the line smoke detectors. The problem was, those damn things went off ALL THE TIME. Anytime of day, seemingly for no rhyme or reason. Maybe it was smoke, maybe it was a draft, maybe it was a ghost. All I know is it made it impossible to feel at peace in my one home, because just as I’d start to relax those things would start blaring like the Echo-1 from Ghost Busters (points if you get the reference.)

There is nothing worse than having to be jumpy all the time because of a faulty alarm system. (Some of you know what I mean with your car or your home security system.) And friends, this is how trauma works in our bodies.

Science is showing us that trauma lives inside your nervous system. It’s an involuntary reaction that you have when you are triggered–even by something seemingly innocent, ANYTHING that unconsciously reminds you of a situation in which you felt extremity threatened, at any time in your past. This experience is stored in your lower brain, and associated with danger, to act as an alarm system for the future to keep you safe. And then anything that even remotely gets associated with that threat sets off a traumatic fight or flight reaction in us.

But sometimes its like an overly sensitive smoke detector that goes off at all kinds of crazy hours, and for no particular reason that you can discern. It makes you feel haunted.

And here is the thing: its is biological, not psychological. So you cannot think you’re way out of it. You might KNOW that you are no longer in danger, no longer that bullied child, no longer that solider in a war zone, no longer that person in an abusive relationship or an employee in a toxic work environment.

But it doesn’t matter. Because your body doesn’t know. It has simply stored data from your entire life. It’s a mechanism responding to stimulus, like that smoke detector or that overly sensitive car alarm.

And once that alarm goes off, it makes it nearly impossible for you to make good choices, or even see clearly what it actually happening around you. You feel threatened, and you interpret the present based on the wounds of the past. You also feel like you are going crazy. You lose track of the present moment and your location, and you go into hard core survival mode. Your heart beats faster, your breathing gets shallow, your muscles coil.

SO: the secret, first of all, is to realize that YOU ARE NOT LOSING YOUR MIND. Everyone is triggered all the time right now. In fact, I honestly believe that almost everyone I know is very subtly being reminded of their all time worst moments in life right now without realizing it. Old bad stuff is coming up all the time.

These days, we are all triggered just about all the time by what is going on in the world. Likewise social media has always operated on principles that keep you hooked by keeping you in a triggered state. I cannot say this clearly enough, social media operates on principles that try to keep you in a mild state of fight or flight, all the time. From Twitter, to Instagram, to Facebook to your favorite dating app, these programs are designed to keep you uncomfortable while promising you the solution to your discomfort. But there is only one real goal–to keep you addicted to the app, and to keep the company who owns it making money.

Secondly then, we might want to start limiting the use of our favorite apps and social media. Don’t get rid of it, especially now when it is giving power to people who need it, and getting out important messages like Black Lives Matter. But DO limit your intake to what you can’t handle. And pay attention to when shopping or dating or binging Netflix start to make you stressed and sad instead of happy.

Thirdly, and this is the most important one: LEARN TO CALM DOWN YOUR BODY. When you feel triggered, remember this is involuntary and biological. You know it is, your heart speeds up, your breathing shallows, your muscles tense, you are ready to spring. Slow down before you react. Don’t make immediate decisions, don’t think yourself or talk yourself into a corner. BREATHE deeply, remember where you are and that you are safe. Move your body, walk, dance, run, kiss, paint, do some yoga, get that body moving to shake out the trauma. Have you ever seen a dog after a good scare? They shake their bodies to get the trauma out.

Fourthly, do some thinking, journaling, or talking with a trusted friend. What old things are getting kicked up? Can you learn anything or grow from revisiting those old wounds in a safe environment? If you need to, please talk to a specialist. Doing so changed my life.

Be warned, some studies suggest we carry the trauma of our parents or even our grandparents in our bodies.

Fifthly read more and learn more about this. Check out Trauma and Memory or The Body Keeps the Score.

Sixthly, remember that some people really DO live in danger, all the time. And those people have to deal with the traumatic triggers of things like intergenerational racism and persecution, increased risk of public harassment, bullying or police brutality, while also dealing with triggers that go off at any time.

Please take a look at the work of Resmaa Menakem to learn more about how we all need to deal with the trauma that comes of just talking about racism, and to calm our triggers, before we can even have a rational conversation. As you understand your own traumas and triggers, you can stop letting it cause you to raise the drawbridge in fight or flight, and instead it can be a gateway to understand the suffering—and crazy behavior—of others.

Lastly, we have to give each other a lot more love and permission here to not be at our best. And give ourselves some love. You are not crazy. You are human, which makes you wounded and complicated.

This is bringing up all your old stuff… but this is an opportunity to face it head on and heal, so your past doesn’t sabotage your future. Then we can all work together to heal.

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