Trauma and Trigger

Kate talked about the night when her dog was having a seizure, while her husband was away on a business trip leaving her and their dog, Cooper, alone in the house. She woke up in the middle of the night by the sound of Cooper’s frantic panting. She knew something was wrong with him as his eyes were full of fear and desperation. Soon enough, he started to quiver his body and then froze up with his toes curled up. “I panicked. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think straight, my head was spinning, and I was just sitting by him watching him in pain.” In about 15 minutes, the seizing power over him has moved through him and he was able to shake it off.

However, this experience has not moved through Kate even after a few weeks. As she recounted that incident with me, she felt her chest was pressed, her palms were sweaty, and she also felt lightheaded. She was fearful that she would not be able to handle it when it happens again, and this fear surfaced up whenever she looked into the eyes of her dog, preventing her from feeling loving and dear with him. Kate could not comprehend why she was having such an incapacitating reaction to something that appeared to be manageable. She knew Cooper’s seizures were mostly harmless as long as he was safe-guarded during them.

As we processed her reactions using EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing; a psychotherapy technique for treating trauma and other symptoms), it was discovered that this incident with her dog had brought her back to the time when her mother was dying of terminal cancer 15 years ago. “It was like that. There was no one to rely on so I felt so alone. And I felt helpless because no matter what I did, I could not save my mom. It was like her life was in my hands and I didn’t know what to do. I felt in the same way when Cooper was having a seizure.. helpless and incapable.”

Trauma is not only a subject for the combat veterans. Because of the way of life as it is, we have unfinished businesses that are undigested in our body and mind which would provoke reactions from mild discomfort to crippling disturbances when we face the right types of triggers. Some of the clues for unfinished businesses include disproportionately strong reactions (often feels like “it started out of blue” and “it does not make any sense to me”) and also the behaviors that we take up to decrease the discomfort, such as avoiding certain areas, activities, and meeting specific people, and also depending on substance use.

Every trauma is a complicated, multi-layered set of facts, memories, beliefs, bodily reaction, etc., and each person’s trigger is unique. If you feel you need other human being to be there with you to process your trauma, please do your homework to find a trustworthy professional. One factor that makes an experience a traumatic one is the lack of connection with supportive people as in Kate’s experience with her mother’s death. To heal from it, it is essential that we need to feel safe and supported.

But before going to see a therapist, here is what you can do on your own: Be curious about your reactions and take some time to get to know what is really going on inside you. There is no reason to be scared of it just because you do not understand what it is, and shoving it down will only get you so far. So, find some quiet time to notice your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations with minimal judgment. These are very useful information that will lead you to a meaningful life.

*This is a composite scenario based on my personal/professional experiences.

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