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You walk into the grocery store, pick up your eggs, juice, bread, and whatever else you need.
You weave through the aisles with your cart.
You’re feeling neither happy or sad; just trying to get things done so you can get home, put the groceries away, and start dinner.
You round the corner of the aisle and come crashing into another cart. The person with the other cart starts yelling at you to watch where you’re going. You’re 100 percent sure you were going slow and that the other person came around too fast.
Your equanimity fades, and your body floods with hot anger at being told you did something that you had no intention or thought of doing. The angrier you get, the worse the yelling match becomes. You leave the store so fired up, you’re ready to fight someone—anyone.
When you get home, there are dishes in the sink. You lose it on every person in the house who could possibly be responsible for leaving the dishes. Even the dog runs away from you with its tail between her legs.
This is how trauma shows up in everyday life.
We rarely think of it as such, but if we could look closer at these blips in our day, we can often find the roots of trauma in them.
You, who tried to go shopping only to leave the store blowing spit-bubbles of anger may have had an authority figure who blamed you for everything even when you did nothing wrong. Now, when a complete stranger reminds you of that blame, it brings up old pain, sending you over the edge. Yet, none of this was evident to you at that moment.
And maybe that other person suffered a traumatic car accident or some other event that was brought up through crashing into your cart. In any case, they also went over the edge, and they didn’t understand what was happening either.
How do I know about trauma? Well, I’ve spent the better part of a decade working on and healing from my own past trauma. And as a former mental health nurse, I also spent more than a decade helping others reclaim their sense of self after severe adverse experiences in both childhood and young adult years.
Trauma is one of the single most devastating precursors for a host of health and psychological illnesses. Unfortunately, we speak very little about it when we discuss cause and treatments for physical and mental health issues.
Yet, the evidence of trauma shows up every day in our relationships, whether intimate or casual.
Trauma is like a volcano, staying dormant under the earth until some disturbance shakes things up enough for it to bubble, burp, or blow completely.
The disturbance comes in the form of a trigger. There are three significant challenges that we face when it comes to triggers:
- The source of the trigger is usually hidden from us.
- The source of the trigger is entirely unknown to others.
- The source of the trigger comes from the past.
These challenges all work together to create a complexity that is so hard to unravel that most of us can’t be bothered with the task of figuring it out.
But here’s the kicker, once those triggers are set off, there’s no telling how far the volcano will blow or how bad the damage will be.
If your triggers are mild and few, you’ll most likely get through those blips with a bit of annoyance but not too much damage on either side.
But if you’re someone who has complex trauma resulting in a ton of different triggers, life can be tough to navigate. Every day can feel like an assault on the senses, which can cause multiple mental and physical health issues for both yourself and your loved ones.
This trauma-trigger-explosion dynamic is like a dance. I say that because we usually explode in tandem, with others. It’s rare that we get triggered all by ourselves.
It usually takes ourselves, and another traumatized soul, where each brings their own bag of hidden memories. We tug at the other’s memory, which causes a reaction that pulls at one of ours. We step back and forth, in and out, of each other’s boundaries. Before you know it, we’re dancing, and there’s absolutely nothing fun about it.
Many of us do the trauma dance every day. We either initiate it, or we participate in someone else’s.
Trauma is so evident in our daily interactions that it’s almost overwhelming to think about it. And yet, we must. Why? Because our health and our relationships need us to think about it.
But it’s best not to work with it in a way that furthers our trauma. We don’t need to cause more disturbance to our volcanoes by getting sad and angry about our trauma dances. Instead, we can throw all the love and compassion at it that we can muster.
Trauma, like a volcano, is an open wound, and meeting it with more trauma is a pure provocation of an already unstable force.
We want to calm the volcano, and we want to listen to it. We want to take responsibility for its eruptions without further blaming or aggravating it.
Triggers are fantastic opportunities for growth and learning if we let them. Triggers are the start of the trauma dance, but the nature of their challenges makes them hard to work with.
There are ways to reframe and understand these challenges in a way that can help us gently work through them.
1. The Source of the Trigger is Usually Hidden from Us.
I’d say this is the biggest challenge, yet it’s also the key to calming the whole thing down. If we knew about our triggers, then we’d likely not get into half the dances we get into.
But forcing ourselves to know and work through them isn’t going to help. Instead, we can be kind and gentle about our excavation. We hide these things for a reason—to protect ourselves. It takes time to dig them up, and it has to be done with love and self-care.
Many of us go to therapy or read self-help books specifically because we want to understand our triggers and their aftermath. Why do we get angry, or shut down, or drink, or whatever it is we do to manage our triggers?
Most people feel an immense relief once they can finally understand, uproot, and identify the source of a trigger. It gives context and helps us thread things together in a cohesive way.
2. The Source of the Trigger is Entirely Unknown to Others.
If my triggers are unknown to me, then how can anyone else know them either? This seems simple, yet we get stuck in this all the time. We think others should know themselves a lot more than they do, even though we barely know ourselves.
Perhaps, just maybe, we can find a little more patience with each other. That doesn’t mean we put up with toxic trigger reactions from other people. Instead, we protect our boundaries while knowing that we can’t help other people, we can only help ourselves.
Since this is a dance, we can understand that we also participate in it. Other people’s triggers bring up our own, which allows us to have a look at ourselves. It’s an opportunity for healing.
3. The Source of the Trigger Comes from the Past.
Every trigger is like a ghost coming back to haunt us. We can’t see it, we hardly remember where it comes from, yet it’s there nudging on our nervous systems and shaking the ground of our unstable volcano.
One of the best things we can do during our trauma dances is to know that a ghost has risen and it’s messing with us. Not because it wants to hurt us, but because it needs a voice. And it will continue to mess with us until we’re able to listen—this is why we get triggered.
The more we know about our traumas and their triggers, the less we get into the trauma dance. Or, once we’re in it, we can find our way out much easier. Many of us are working hard to uncover the mysteries of our psyche. The best advice is always to continue the search, no matter how hard it is, doing the work is better than not doing it.
If you’re at the very beginning of this work, it can help to just be aware of when these dances happen. Where in your life do you most often do the trauma dance? In your intimate relationship? At work? With strangers?
The beginning of any and all healing is simply awareness.
By thinking of these mutual co-created trigger moments as a dance, it helps us remember how we share space with each other. We’re reminded of our connections and how fundamental they are to our learning and well-being.
Some of the most potent sources of trauma healing are our daily interactions with people we love, people we don’t love, and/or with complete strangers. Think of them as opportunities to be aware of what’s coming up, what darkness needs a light, and what parts of ourselves need a voice.
In this way, we don’t come to hate the trauma dance, we come to see it as part of our healing. We then see the people we meet each day as equals, who are also hurting and reacting.
Often, healing is not getting away from things. Instead, it’s about moving toward them.
We dance, and then we learn.