Neurobiological Underpinnings of Triggers (Part 2 of 3)
As we learned from last weeks blog, triggers can evoke powerful feelings that can lead us to behave in seemingly irrational ways. When we become triggered, owing to a fear response, we do not always have access to the executive functions that are located primarily in the prefrontal cortex. Instead, we are rerouted to the limbic area, which provides the important function of keeping us safe from being hurt. This part of the brain is on the watch for threat, prioritizing safety over a more lengthy and complex evaluation of the stimulus in relation to the current context in which it appears. This limbic response to external threat generally results in behavior that fits into one of the fight, flight or freeze categories. The behavior that results from this instant (and often unconscious) appraisal could be silence, moving away, or shouting and bickering. The external threat can be a psychological or a physical threat. For example you could be afraid someone is going to hit you if their anger is escalating. Or, if a loved one is remote and unresponsive, you might be afraid that the relationship is in jeopardy. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for, among other things, comprehending complex information, planning, interpreting social signals and grasping consequences. These functions become overridden in the service of safety and survival when the limbic centers take the helm owing to a threatening or evocative stimulus.
How triggers develop
Past difficult or traumatic experiences that were not comprehended either because we were at an age whereby we didn’t have the ability to take in the meaning and context of an event, or because there was no one around to help us make sense of what was happening, become lodged in our brain in a problematic way. Because we were not able to “make sense” of this data, it does not get integrated into the larger functioning of the brain. Additionally, when there was no one there to understand and help sooth our distress, this too will contribute to these emotional memories getting stored in a way that can be problematic later on. When these events are not processed, these emotional “memories” hang around in little encapsulated neural nets in the brain that get pulled up when we experience a stimulus that reminds us of the initial trauma or past difficult situations. Once we are triggered, the brain effectively reroutes us to the limbic system, which is wired for survival purposes. We react before we even know what we are reacting to. Interestingly, trauma or unprocessed memories from stressful events have no time stamp, so as we experience this visceral reaction, it feels as though we are responding to the current situation rather than to the echoes of a past event.
Can we control our reactions to triggers?
Yes and no. It is important to note that we are unable to control something we are unaware of. By their nature, triggers are often unconscious. The good news is there are many cues that can alert us to the possibility that we are being triggered. If we know how to perceive these cues, then we can utilize them as signals, thus bringing them into our conscious awareness, moving us one step closer to controlling our response. Processing troubling or painful events with someone who cares about us, is an important way of minimizing the chance of a memory becoming traumatic. It’s not the event itself that is the problem as much as the way it’s handled, and whether one has help and support in facing this difficulty. How we deal with it is what’s most important. Tune in next week to learn some practical steps towards how we can recognize and deal with out triggers effectively.