Chapter 14 – Understanding Traumatic Memories and Triggers

This chapter of Coping with Trauma Related Dissociation by Suzette Boon, Kathy Steele and Onno Van Der Hart tackles something useful for everybody, even those without dissociative parts: triggers. Let’s dive right in!

Depending on the nature of a memory, it’ll be stored in one of two ways.

An autobiographical memory is one where you realize the event happened in the past, and isn’t happening now. It’s part of your life narrative. A traumatic memory, on the other hand, is stored in your brain along with the intense and overwhelming emotions you experienced at the time. The memory is encoded as a bundle that includes sensory information (like images, sounds and smells) tied to emotions (like shame, despair, confusion, etc). It can also include behaviors, such as the urge to run away, fight, freeze or shut down.

Traumatic memory reactivation’s are unpleasant, to say the least.

When you run across something that bears a literal, symbolic or emotional aspect of a traumatic memory, the memory is reactivated, aka, “triggered”. Triggers can easy to identify and understand (like a dog growling at you triggering a traumatic memory of a dog bite) or totally obscure (seeing children at play makes you angry). These are conditioned reactions that you cannot consciously control.

In DID, this can be tough to figure out, as it’s entirely possible to for a dissociative part to have memories reactivated, even if the fronting part has complete amnesia for the memory. When that happens, you can experience a disturbing emotional spike and intense physical symptoms, but have no real idea why.

Here’s some signs you might be experiencing a trigger:

  • You overreact to a situation you could normally handle
  • You can’t reflect, you feel stuck inside the reaction
  • Your fight, flight, freeze or collapse defenses kick in
  • Depersonalization / “watching it happen”
  • Switching and time loss
  • You experience intrusive memories (flashbacks)

ANP’s in particular are accustomed to avoiding triggers, making their world smaller and smaller to reduce the potential of an “unexplainable” and confusing reaction.

Common types of triggers are described in the book, including the more well-known varieties: sensory, time-based and place based. Relational triggers occur when there’s a perceived threat in a relationship, reminding you of a past traumatic relationship, even if the situation itself is vastly different now. And lastly, internal triggers, which can lead to phobias of inner experiences/parts, covered earlier in chapter 5.

There’s also some good news!

“Positive triggers are important because they can help you find some enjoyment and calmness in the present. In fact, your personal anchors are positive triggers that help you stay in the present.”

So, what should you do?

Homework this week is to reflect on a time you were recently triggered. You’ll try to identify the trigger type and specifics, note how you unconsciously reacted, if you dissociated or switched, and which parts were activated (both during and after the trigger). You’ll also identify positive triggers and your reactions, which is a fun way to wrap up.  

You WON’T try to unpack the trauma associated with the trigger. That’s not something you should try alone or without the necessary skills in your toolbox. Next chapter, Coping with Triggers, will help you fill that toolbox.

Oh, there’s also a visualization exercise that involves shopping for the armor you need to protect you from the trigger. We walked away with a Magneto-style helmet, an invisible bodysuit, and ass-kicking pink boots. I wasn’t able to find a similar exercise online but if you’re desperate, hit me up and I’ll send it over. I have a feeling the authors wouldn’t object.

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