Trauma and Triggers
Last week, we brought attention to our subconscious mind. We spent time examining the rules, beliefs, and values that construct our worldview. We are paying attention to our narratives and the emotions they produce. We are becoming aware of the ego voice inside our head and recognizing the uncomfortable tugging we feel when our ego is challenged. We try to bring compassionate curiosity to all these thoughts and feelings as we trace them back to our ego, values, underlying rules, and beliefs. Our intention is to hold it all in a space of accepting and allowing, rather than judgment, defensiveness, or fear. Creating this kind of space is not a skill we will master this week or any other. Instead, it is a practice we will continue to integrate into our daily lives.
We are discovering the benefits of true humility–a spiritual powerhouse that we can easily underestimate. At LBS, humility starts with this simple admission: we are limited human beings with limited perspective, just like everybody else. When we cease putting ourselves above or below others, we grow in humility. Such a paradigm shift is radical in a world that loves pedestals. But when we pedestalize anyone, we block ourselves from the very meaning of Namaste: Unity, Oneness, the same infinitely precious Light moving through each one of us. Interconnection is not a concept that typically clicks with our logic. But as we experience this transcendent state in our practice, it becomes easier to grasp in our hearts and minds. Such a shift changes everything about the way we view our place in the world.
Humility also means opening to new ideas and loosening the grip on our tightly-held conviction that we know best. Openness is the foundation of all our spiritual growth because it helps us find our essential empty cup. This empty cup can be our greatest source of strength because it creates the space that allows a Higher Power to work in us. We might already have noticed this in class: when we practice mindful movement and meditation, our experience is only as enlightening as the openness we bring to our practice. Some days we are more open than others, and that is okay. As we open ourselves up, our Higher Power can help us transcend the inherent limits of our human mind and body, if only for a few moments. We find these moments as we take the time to touch home regularly. As we do, we feel the relief of connecting into something Higher, and our humility grows.
Last week’s exploration of our subconscious can nurture our growing humility. The complexity of the “glasses” we wear can help us clearly see our need for a Higher Power. With so many factors coloring our viewpoint, we’ve got to find something more solid than our own intellect to tap into. At LBS, the space beyond thought that we find in the present moment is the solution. We use this sacred space to tap into a different way of knowing, where our spiritual intuition and direct connection to Divinity permeates our existence and guides our path.
This week, we explore another humbling element from the landscape of our subconscious mind: trauma. People often think of trauma as a life-threatening incident, but LBS recognizes trauma as any moment that severs us from our true nature and causes us to close off from our hearts. Through this lens, we can consider trauma to be a universal part of our human experience, inevitable through living an imperfect human life amidst other imperfect humans. So no matter how idyllic our lives may be, let’s open our minds to the idea that we all experience moments, big or small, that in some way traumatize our souls.
In fact, the very moment we are born into the world and separated from the Divine may well represent our first, most fundamental trauma. No wonder that Eckhart Tolle cites this traumatic moment of separation as the birthplace of the fear-based ego. Our typical response to trauma of all kinds is to lock into survival mode, to fall into self-protective ways of being in the world. But, our protective behaviors are understandable. Trauma can cause mind and body chaos in powerful ways.
We can experience both big-T and little-t traumas. Little-t traumas might occur through something as small and simple as something somebody said to us that caused us to question our worth, close off our hearts, and begin living from a place of fear. Big-T Traumas might be major events that segment our lives into before-and-after, pushing us beyond our ability to cope and causing significant physiological effects, including hyper-vigilance, sleeplessness, and flashbacks. As a core wound to the soul, both types of trauma can be equally damaging, leaving us floundering in the wake of mental-emotional pain and physical chaos. A sense of total powerlessness makes trauma particularly painful, but also a potent vehicle toward the empty cup required for healing and transformation.
At LBS, the body is the gateway to understanding trauma because it stores every thought, memory, and sensation. The body is like a container; it holds the data from a lifetime of lived experience within gigantic, subconscious file drawers. We can use mindful movement and meditation to access this subconscious, where each experience is carefully filed away and labeled according to our interpretation. But let’s remember that our interpretations cannot always be trusted–our subconscious glasses unconsciously color them. We can carefully and kindly use the body to reopen drawers and process our experiences through the Light of our Higher Power. Sometimes, we find that our brain has filed away an experience as painful, shameful, or traumatic, and slammed the file drawer, hoping never to open it again.
When this happens, the sensory input associated with these traumatic experiences becomes classified by our brain as a threat. Filed away in the trauma folder, this data remains stored in the very cells of our body. Unattended, these memories can become painful and persistent triggers. When something triggers our brains into these neural pathways, our body activates the FREEZE/FIGHT/FLIGHT response in an effort to protect us from the remembered threat. As a result, our behavior and emotions can become irrational, out-of-control, or just plain crazy, spinning us into versions of ourselves we would rather forget. All sorts of things can become wired into our brain as triggers: sights, sounds, smells, sensations, a person, a song on the radio, a word, a specific date or time of year. Our brain’s warning system can send us confusing signals: we feel like we are in danger, though we may not be in reality. Triggers can bring us right back into the emotions and fears associated with our most powerless moments.
In this way, trauma can spin us out of our rational mind and into our limbic system, even long after traumatic events are over. This hard-wired physiological response can feel scary and out of control. We might find that all we can do is just survive the powerful emotions that arise. This is okay. Sometimes surviving is all we can do. Reaching In, Reaching Up, and Reaching Out can help us safely and compassionately work our way through trauma triggers.
At Lifehouse Body & Soul, viewing trauma as a hard-wired survival response is crucial for two reasons:
We believe that traumas can help us learn to look towards a Higher solution: a healing Power greater than ourselves. When we can name trauma as it is happening, we can consciously know that we are in over our heads and we need God right now. We can learn to apply compassionate healing and grounding tools to realign our mind-body-spirit. We can turn to a Higher Power to surrender and ask for the strength to get through just this moment.
This centered response is a stark contrast to an unconscious tailspin: grasping at willpower or self-discipline, punishing or judging ourselves, or even desperately spinning our wheels to figure out what is happening with our logical mind.
We believe that understanding the physiological aspects of trauma helps us separate Self from the intense emotions that accompany triggers. Naming our internal chaos as trauma helps us detach and become the observer rather than get swept up in the trigger.
It is not uncommon to experience triggers during Daily Practice. When the mind is brought into a free-flowing, meditative state, its unresolved and painful memories may surface. Some of us might avoid meditation for this very reason. As we progress in our practice, we want to create more capacity to stay when trauma triggers arise. We can do this slowly by easing out of meditation and into anchors of breath and body if sensations or emotions become too intense. We can swing in and out, between feeling and anchoring as it serves us, gaining the ability to stay present with difficult emotions. In mindfulness terms, this movement is called titrating; it can keep us from pushing away, shutting off, or unraveling completely. Sometimes, we will get swept up in a trigger, losing our serenity–even falling apart. If we are working through a great deal of trauma, this might feel like something we battle with constantly. However, we can rest assured that this level of intensity won’t last forever.
As we continue to gently feel into traumatic memories, we will likely find that underneath each one lurks unhelpful or false beliefs that we have unconsciously internalized. Maybe they sound like: “This was my fault.” “I am not enough.” “I am unlovable.” or “I deserve this.” These inner voices can feel so terribly unique to us, but it can be helpful to know that they are actually very universal. So many people in trauma are swimming through similar voices in their heads. This type of tormented thinking is often the true source of our significant and ongoing internal pain, even more than our outer circumstances.
As we uncover these voices, we can ask ourselves: What would happen if I held them up to the Light of a Higher Power instead of believing them? By shining Divine Light into our internal darkness, we have more capacity to consciously choose: Do I accept this belief? Or do I reject it? We can ask a loving Higher Power to show us more and help us see Truth. When the dark voices start circling, instead of closing into ourselves, let’s practice turning to God or a safe person and questioning the darkness.
The more courageously we face these voices and deeply heal our core beliefs, the less of our lives we spend running from ourselves, grasping to cope. In this way, our traumas can become a vehicle to a more liberated life than we have ever known. They offer a direct path back to our subconscious–more direct than we can access in the often-circular wanderings of our logic.
As we begin to uncover and peel back our traumas–whether big or small, fresh or long-since-buried, let’s take time to respond individually to each one. Let’s give ourselves permission to grieve our losses for as long as we need to and allow our grief to be just as it is. As we do, we can trust that the well of our seemingly endless sorrow will eventually run dry, and healing will naturally flow through its currents. Over time, as we work with our Higher Power, we can carve out the empty space required to build something new together.
Recognizing & Responding to Trauma Triggers
Our mindfulness practice this week is couched in the soft, welcoming cushions of self-compassion. Let’s hold our past traumas as sacred and acknowledge that present and future triggers can still awaken extremely painful memories and emotions. If we have been a victim of abuse, betrayal, or have felt any significant loss, we clearly acknowledge that these traumatic events were not our choice or our fault.
Yet, despite incredible difficulties, we can still allow these experiences to become a valuable part of our life. When we consciously choose to bring acceptance to such traumas, they can become the vehicle for healing.
In Week Seven, we practice recognizing trauma triggers and responding to them with wisdom and compassion. Triggers might manifest as strong mental, emotional, or physical reactions. When we feel such a trigger, we allow it. We give it mental, emotional, and spiritual space. We give ourselves permission to feel it, process it, or even move away from it for a time. We increase our self-care and offer compassion to ourselves, just like we would a loved one in struggle, with patience, tenderness, and care. We can even give it voice, asking out loud, “Is there a real threat, in the here and now? Or is this triggering back to trauma from my past? What do I need right now? Where do I feel this in my body?”
If the threat is real, we first take action to get ourselves to safety. We create and hold boundaries that create spaces of physical, emotional, and mental safety. Let’s allow the Mama-Bear inside us to help us become our own compassionate and fiery advocate, acknowledging that valid anger can be a vehicle for change. First, we want to identify and then amend ways we have hurt ourselves or enabled others to hurt us. This process will look different for all of us and help us begin exploring boundaries that honor ourselves, our shared humanity, and our values. Similarly, we want to practice voicing any needs and emotions we have previously choked back or swallowed. We can use our voice, our community, and our actions to put ourselves in a safe space.
Often, we find that triggers are tied back to experiences from our past. In this case, we can use our tools to find our center: Reaching in to journal, breathe, or mindfully move, Reaching Up to talk to God, or Reaching Out for support. We might also find the structured mindfulness practice of RAIN helpful in bringing clarity to our triggered confusion:
R: We recognize what is happening in our minds and bodies, naming any emotions or narratives and acknowledging our difficulty.
We might say something like: “I feel abandoned, and I am really struggling right now.”
A: We allow ourselves to be just where we are, creating lots of space for our emotions.
We might say something like: “It’s okay that I feel this way. This is just how it is right now.” or “There is room for this, too.”
I: Once we feel safe and accepted in our present condition, we investigate the feeling. Perhaps we might ask:
“What is the hardest part of this for me?”
“Where am I feeling this in my body? Have I felt this before?”
“When I feel this emotion very strongly, what is it that I am believing?”
“What do I need right now, if anything?”
N: We nurture ourselves with compassion, perhaps bringing a Higher Power, loved one, or our own Higher Self into our inner space to hold us and hold all that we feel with us. We might even place a hand on our heart, or curl up into a safe, held, fetal position.
As we use RAIN to work through trauma or any other difficulty, we want to be careful not to get hooked into the narrative, search for solutions, or try to “fix the problem.” Instead, we try to drop the story and drop into the body to find a Higher Power at our center. From this safe place, we have the courage to see the full truth of who we are because we feel His infinite love within us. When we touch home, we can sense the importance of this brutal and beautiful process: our soul unfolding. Somehow, there is room for this, too.