Trauma Triggers

Updated: Jan 25

The sound of kids chattering and laughing and joking in the backseat is one of my favorite parts of being a foster mama. So when the sounds paused when the song Memories played on the car radio, I knew it must be related to the trauma history. I quickly changed the song and he quickly corrected me with “Mom play Memories again.” Silent. Still. Mournful. His sister chimes in, “You know my mom died right, like my real mom.” I can't imagine how many bad memories flashed through that child’s mind when he heard the song Memories, but to him, right then, the pain overtook him and he needed a moment to sit in the feeling of grief and hurt. The trigger didn’t care that he was safe, the trigger didn’t care that we were all together, triggers do not care who you are. It is not personal. It is, trauma.


Trauma’s imprint is both psychological and somatic. It can be a song, a word that is said, a sound, a smell, an object, the color of the blue dress, a person’s haircut. Trauma triggers are everywhere. They are a myriad of sensations that make trauma present in both feelings and thought. Trauma by definition is unbearable and intolerable. It takes tremendous strength and grit to function expectedly when faced with the memory of terror or shame.


Last year, a teacher asked for support in her classroom. A student was dysregulated and eloping from the space, hiding, and avoiding the teacher's directions. I sat at a distance with the door open and sat peacefully. My staff often mock my unusually calm words of affirmation during moments of turmoil, “You are safe, you are capable, you are kind, you are brave, you are cared for, and I am here when you’re ready.” It took time but using compassion in the vision of service of others makes it less important to be right and more important to be present. The teacher recounted the event to me later- he was working on an activity, the activity seemed hard, so I asked him to take a break. A “break”. Sign. There it was, the trigger word. The problem wasn’t the assignment, it was the use of the word break. In another school setting, break meant seclusion. It meant a room alone with no stimulation and no interaction and isolation. It was frightening and he was terrified. Trauma. It’s really easy to miss if you don't take the time to really understand how trauma manifests in the human body, in emotion, and in response to the presumption of imminent danger.


This might be why I spend so much time understanding and studying trauma. I want to better support the children who came through my home and the students who enter schools around the world. Trauma, when triggered, is imminent and all-encompassing.


Holiday seasons can be a trigger. Certain people coming over who are referred to as “uncle” or “Nana”, can be triggers. Teachers wearing a certain perfume become a trigger. Certain sounds or songs or the passing train in a moment of terror become the triggers for specific trauma. So, when I start cooking, when I teach, when I light the scented candle, when I walk into a space with another human; I watch the faces and moods as the environment changes. Anyone whose affect changes suddenly, I keep an eye on them.


So many well-meaning professionals and parents get trauma behavior mixed up with noncompliance, but that’s a mistake. Those misinterpretations lead to power struggles and power differentials and labels and treatment plans and goals that all miss the fundamental core of human beings and our need to be accepted, safe, and respected. I believe in the human capacity for change. We know from interpersonal neurobiology that relationships change the neural rewiring of brains and that over time with trust and attentiveness, true healing can occur. This starts with understanding. It starts with a deep desire to connect, and the necessity to be purposeful in every action, every interaction, and every word used. Co-regulation comes from a place of great love, unwavering acceptance, and a commitment to be unapologetically inclusive at all costs.


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