So, yes, they are all in my head, because that is where my brain is.

Triggers Are Real

Triggers are serious and should not be laughed at or minimized.

Some minor word or minor action versus my strong response is not always easy to explain to others.  

They did not live through what I lived through.

I live with triggers in my brain.  

As a layperson, I am going to explain some of the brain science of triggers.  I use common non-traumatic experiences to explain neuropathways and triggers.  My hope is others may use these same examples to help people who don’t have triggers to better understand what we live with.  I hope this article is easier to read with few traumatic references. 

(Content warning: minimal mention of a car accident, snake, physical abuse, anger/rage, and alcohol, with no details of any of the events.)

Neuropathways

To learn to do something new, one must “Practice, Practice, Practice.”  Repetition builds a specific pathway in the brain to do a specific task.  Neuroscientists call these specific pathways in the brain neural pathways or neuropathways.  (I am not a neuroscientist.  More information about neuropathways is on the internet.  I am writing about neuropathways as a layperson and the neural, axial, and synapses details are not important to understanding this article.)

As a child, memorizing the alphabet song created a pathway in my brain.  If someone says, “Sing A, B, C,” I immediately hear that song in my head and I will automatically prepare my vocal cords to start to sing “A, B, C, D, (pause) E, F, G…”  Memorizing the alphabet song created a neuropathway in my brain that will last all of my life.  This specific neuropathway is still there and is easily activated, with one word and four letters.  Probably, “Sing A, B” is enough to activate this specific neuropathway.

A neuropathway can go to and activate different parts of the brain.  A neuropathway can activate learned instructions of how to do something, memories, or both.   These instructions can start to send messages to other parts of my body.  From “Sing A, B…” I immediately activated nerves, muscles, and my vocal cords getting ready to sing.  

Ask me to show how to tie my shoes; I will start to move my arms, hands, fingers, and body before I am even consciously thinking about how to demonstrate shoe tying.  The brain and body are very interconnected. 

If at age 20, I learned a new alphabet song, this would create a new neuropathway for this new alphabet song.  I practice, practice, practice this new alphabet song with a child.  We perform this new alphabet song in their kindergarten class.  A year passes, and someone says, “Sing A, B, C, D.”  Most likely, the alphabet song I learned as a child will be the first song I think of, the first neuropathway that is activated.  

This is the power of a strong, well-established and first learned neuropathway.  Plus, the strength of the primary neuropathway versus later developed neuropathways, to the same activating event.  The new alphabet song is a secondary neuropathway, less substantial, less established, less developed, like a walking path off of a road or an off-ramp or detour, connected to the first neuropathway for the activating event “Sing A, B, C.” 

Neuropathways and Brain Development

These neuropathways in our brain are like roads on the landscape.  The first three minutes of this video created by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains the creation of neuropathways in the brain.  This video has superb graphics with this explanation.  I highly recommend watching the first three minutes of this video: “Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Online Training Module 1 Lesson” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-SSwYTe8TY  

Here are two important quotes from this video: 

“Our brains develop and change throughout life, enabling us to learn and do new things and to adapt at every age.  But childhood, and early childhood, in particular, is the most sensitive and critical period for brain development. As a child interacts with the world, their experiences, both positive and negative, stimulate the brain, causing it to form neural pathways that lay the foundation for lifelong cognitive and behavioral functioning.” –the narrator

“Our experiences literally shape the way our brain is developing and the brain architecture.”  Jordan Greenbaum, MD

I am going to continue to focus on neuropathway creation and activation.

Intensity can create a strong neuropathway with just one occurrence

“Practice, Practice, Practice” can create a strong neuropathway.  The intensity of an experience can fast-track the creation of a primary neuropathway or link to a memory.  If my favorite song, for 30 years, was playing on the car radio just as I got into a car accident, my favorite song could immediately become something that activates my memories, feelings, or flashback (typical or emotional) of this automobile accident.  Now, I may hate and dread this song from one event.

Neuropathways for Warnings

As a toddler, before I have conscious memories, I learned that “HOT” stated strongly by an older person meant “Don’t Touch! Hurts!”  I expect I was allowed to touch a few semi-hot objects to help me learn this lesson.  

Now, in my fifties, if someone yelled, “HOT” at me, I would automatically stop.  I stop because of a strongly practiced neuropathway in my brain.

Singing the alphabet song never hurt; it may feel a bit silly as an adult.  In childhood, burns hurt and still hurt fifty years later.  I still appreciate a “HOT” warning, if I am about to touch something hot.  Yes, please activate the “HOT” neuropathway for me.

If someone yells, “Snake,” I will stop and look, feeling a bit cautious.  If someone yells snake five different times on a hike and there is never a snake, I will start to doubt that person’s snake warnings.  I am building a new “Snake” response neuropathway specific to this jokester.  This new neuropathway will be a secondary neuropathway to someone yelling “Snake.”  I will still pause for a split second, identify the voice, then I remember this jokester likes to do this and I will relax and continue walking.  After a few times, this secondary neuropathway will also be activated in a split second.

Psychological Traumatic Triggers

Regarding Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (CPTSD), “trigger” is used to refer to a word, action, smell, sound, song, visual, or anything that activates a neuropathway, memory, typical flashback or emotional flashback connected to a traumatic event.

During a traumatic event, brain activation, body chemistry, and emotions are incredibly intense, that is why it takes only one experience to create these strong, primary neuropathways. 

The warning “HOT!” was created before I have conscious memories, yet I still know it.  I have feared my father all of my life.  I am certain I had traumatic experiences at his hand, with his angry voice, before I can remember.

Using Brain Science to Heal

I live with CPTSD and I know a lot of my triggers.  I tell a half-joke.  “If someone is somewhat drunk and then shows anger, it is magic.  I disappear!”  I still cannot be around somewhat drunk people who show any amount of anger.  I know this is from my childhood with an angry, alcoholic father.  

When I am triggered, knowing what is happening in my brain helps me to:

  • -not blame myself
  • -not criticize myself
  • -not accept the thought “I’m too sensitive”
  • -not accept the thought “I’m a failure.”  

Instead, I try to: 

  • -accept that I am this sensitive; because being this sensitive helped me survive in the past
  • -take a few deep breaths
  • -get to a safe place
  • -let myself experience my feelings, without judgment
  • -go for a walk
  • -take a nap
  • -watch TV as a distraction
  • -eventually, try to identify what activated this neuropathway.

I am working to build new secondary neuropathways to many of my triggers.  The process is not easy or fast, but it is helping.  

(I don’t identity dissociate or experience typical flashbacks.  I do emotionally dissociate and experience emotional flashbacks.   A list of what to do when triggered will be different for every person, based on what they experience.)

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