We all have experiences where a situation triggers a trauma response in us. Something from the past feels as though it is happening again in our present. Our body responds, our thoughts and feelings follow, and we experience anxiety. What can we do to shorten the time we spend in this state of emotional pain? How can we work our way out of the past, back into the present, where we have options and resources?
TRANSCRIPT: Knowing Your Trauma Response
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today we’re going to be talking about knowing your trauma story inside and out. When I work with clients and we’re working on the trauma story and we’ve identified the bits and pieces of it and we’ve identified… I’ll usually ask them to bottom line it, or sometimes I’ll say hashtag that for me, so when that particular trauma story gets activated in one sentence, hashtag for me what the bottom line of that trauma story is, or what’s the belief that gets activated or the feelings that get activated when that trauma story gets pressed on?
I will often say to clients that part of the work of healing from trauma is to know our trauma story inside and out. We have to know what comes up for us, whether that’s the belief, whether that’s the emotions and the feelings that come up in our body, whether that’s knowing then how to counteract some of those responses, those trauma responses that come up, and it’s just really kind of knowing that inside and out so that it’s not that it doesn’t happen anymore… I don’t know that we’re going to get to a place where we don’t have the ability to have that trauma story triggered.
The point of doing that work is so that when that starts to get triggered, hopefully within a short amount of time, we can start to recognize what’s happening to us, and we can activate that more left-leaning brain, the left brain that kind of is more logical and can help us reason our way out of that, and we can identify the emotions that are coming up. We can identify the beliefs about ourselves that get activated. We can identify the beliefs about the world and our position in the world and what gets activated there. We can start to address all of that and move ourselves out of trauma response into being able to kind of look around, look at our circumstances, and have options and choices that we didn’t have when the original trauma story happened.
So I’ll talk to clients about doing that and really getting to know this inside and out so that it doesn’t scare us maybe the way that it used to so that when it gets activated… again sometimes when it gets activated, it may take us a couple of hours, it may take us a day to recognize that something got activated and we’re in this place of reacting to a historical story, and in the present it may be similar, or as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it rhymes.” So we’re having something that’s similar enough. It rhymes, and that is what activated or triggered this trauma story historically, and I’m responding in my present to this historical trauma story.
Now part of what makes it traumatizing generally is that in those situations, we were in either a dependent state, like a childlike state or a dependent state, so that we didn’t necessarily have the power to make choices or the power to make the story different. Hopefully one of the things that is different in our present life now that we’re adults is that we do have options. We do have choices, and there are resources available to us that we can activate in order to have a different outcome.
So I talk with clients about this all the time. I help them work on knowing that trauma story inside and out, starting to be able to put our finger on when it’s activated, being able to maybe shorten that timeframe from when it gets triggered to where we start to understand that hey this is triggered and I’m having a trauma response.
So I’m going to share a personal experience that I recently had with a trauma response, and it’s one of my trauma responses that doesn’t really happen very much anymore. In fact, when it was happening and I was able to within I don’t know 10 minutes, 15 minutes maybe, I was able to be like, wait a minute, I’m having a trauma response, and I was able to make choices that I couldn’t have at the origin of this trauma story, and so I was able to kind of work my way out of it, and I said to my husband afterwards, he was there when this was happening, and I said to him, “I don’t think I’ve had that trauma response in years.” And he validated that. He was like, yeah, years, like a decade, possibly even two decades since he has seen me have that trauma response.
Now that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had any trauma responses get triggered because I’m human and I live in an imperfect world and I’m an imperfect person in relationships with other imperfect people, and so those things can get triggered, but that particular trauma response, I don’t know the last time that that was triggered.
So I’m going to back up and just kind of tell the story of what happened, maybe lay some groundwork. I don’t think that this part that I’m going to talk about was part of the trigger, but a couple of months ago, actually in August, I got a Facebook message from a childhood friend of mine, and I would say we were best friends through elementary and junior high, and then in high school, we went to the same high school, but in high school, our paths kind of diverged and she hung out with different people than I hung out with. It’s not like our friendship ended poorly. It’s not that we had hard feelings towards each other, but we just really didn’t hang in the same circles, our paths didn’t necessarily cross, and we hadn’t seen each other in years.
So in August… both of our birthdays are in May, and due to COVID-19, we had great celebrations… just kidding. We didn’t have hardly any big celebrations, and it was a big milestone birthday for us, we were both turning 50 this year in 2020, and so in August, I got a Facebook message from this friend, and it just said, hey, I haven’t talked to you in I don’t even know how long, but we both just had our 50th birthday, and we should definitely just get together and catch up, COVID style of course, and just catch up. I’d love to see you. And I was like, oh I would totally love to see you too.
Now I have a situation where a lot of times people will say to me like, oh my gosh, we should totally catch up, we should get together, and it never happens, so I was like yeah, I would totally love to get together. I’d totally love to catch up with you, and she was like, how about next Monday or Tuesday? This was on like a Saturday, and she was like how about Monday or Tuesday? Do either of those days work for you? And I was like, oh wow, she’s serious. This is actually going to happen.
So I had said Monday probably works better for me, and we met at her mom’s place. She had picked up some dinner for us, and we met at her mom’s place and just socially distanced, had masks on initially as I met her mom. I’ve met her mom before, I spent a lot of time at her house, but her mom is older and has a lot of health complications, and so I was able to say hello to her again and tell her how good it was to see her again, and I had a mask on, and then we went out in the backyard and sat on the patio with more than 6 feet between us, and then took off our masks and ate dinner, and we probably talked for like, I don’t know, 3 hours, and we just caught up and were able to talk.
I have to say I came home and I said to my husband, that was one of the most pleasant conversations I’ve ever had, and I said I don’t know if it takes getting to 50 years old before you can have that kind of conversation or if it takes getting to 50 years old and maybe kind of doing your own work. I don’t know. It was just so nice for both of us to be able to know who we were back then, know who we are today, be able to openly talk about who we were back then, aspects of our relationship, why our relationship kind of diverged.
Like I said, even though there were no harsh feelings about our friendship parting and going two different directions, we were able to talk about with some insight and I would say some responsibility about why that friendship diverged and we were kind of saying how long has it been since we’ve seen each other? And near our best guess, approximately it could be a year or two longer than this, but probably 33 years since we’ve seen each other, and we’ve both lived full and fulfilling lives, I would say. Her youngest just graduated this past year. My youngest is a senior this current year.
So again, we were able to talk about our friends, we were able to catch up on siblings, we were able to talk just about life and like I said, it was one of the most pleasant experiences or pleasant conversations I think I’ve had in my lifetime to just be able to openly talk with insight and responsibility about who we were, who we had been, how that had impacted us, how that had a part in who we were today. It was just delightful. I hope everybody can have a conversation like that with your childhood friend when you reach 50.
Anyway, one of the things that she was saying to me, as I’ve gotten older and worked in the career that I’ve worked in, she’s like I have a lot of questions about your family growing up. She’s like, are you okay if I ask you some of these questions? And thankfully I’ve done a lot of work on my family of origin, and so I was in a place where that wasn’t going to trigger me, and I don’t feel like I was in too much denial about what was going on with my family, so I was able to say, yeah, let’s talk about that. What kind of questions do you have?
The first things she said wasn’t actually a question. It was more of a statement, and she just said, “You know, your dad was not a good person.” And I said, “Right. Yeah, you’re right. That’s true.” She said, “Your dad actually scared the hell out of me. I’ve wondered through the years if that was me or if I was picking up on your energy or if that was like your dad’s energy. I cannot recall your dad ever even speaking to me, so I don’t know that there’s something I can put my finger on that made me afraid of your dad, but I was scared to death of your dad, and I knew that if I was at your house and we were hanging out and your dad came home, we got out of there as quick as possible, and we did not want to do anything that put us on the radar.”
I said, “Yeah, that’s true. You know, it’s probably both. I’m sure that my dad put off some energy that didn’t make him approachable or that made him intimidating or kind of scary. You also probably picked up on some fear that I had of my dad.” Now that was not necessarily something that I knew. I mean I knew that my dad wasn’t a good person. I knew that I didn’t necessarily like my dad, and I knew that my dad and his anger could flip on a dime, and it could get bad. It could get really bad. But I hadn’t ever had that kind of feedback before where she was saying this fear… she’s like, “I picked up on this fear. I felt absolute fear around your dad.”
So I had to look at that, and I felt some compassion for my younger self and was just like wow, I don’t know if I was fully aware of how that felt to be around my dad. I can remember instances. I can remember some details, not all the details, of different experiences that I either witnessed or was part of, but I don’t know that I had that awareness to be like there was this energy around me that was really fearful that another person, my friend, could pick up on.
So again, it was really interesting to have this conversation with somebody who had a front row to my family growing up, from the time I was like in kindergarten through ninth grade, this person had a front row seat to my family and what was happening in my family, as I did in her family. I think I mentioned before that I remember one time being invited to…. I think I mentioned it on this podcast before, I remember once being invited to eat dinner at my friend’s house, and it was this particular friend that had invited me to eat dinner.
As we got older, that was not necessarily uncommon that I… I don’t know that she ever really ate at my house, but sometimes she would invite me to eat at her house, and I remember, this still sticks in my mind that I was like, oh my gosh, they’re having pork chops on a Wednesday. So I remember it was a Wednesday and we had pork chops for dinner. At my house, we would have like meat on Sundays, and during the week, we had casseroles, so it was usually ground beef or… never like chicken. Sometimes like tuna noodle casserole. We didn’t have like our own meat on a weeknight, so that was like kind of a big deal to me. That was one of those, oh wow, other people live differently than I do in my family.
My friend was the third of five kids, and I was the second of six kids, so it’s not like there was a huge difference between kids in our family. I wouldn’t say her parents were wealthy. I would say that her parents managed their money probably… certainly better than my dad, with a gambling addiction, and I would say that her parents loved each other, and both of her parents, her dad and her mom, were just good people.
So that was an interesting conversation, and when I left and was driving home that night, I just had this new level of compassion for my younger self, knowing the feedback that she had given me and knowing some things that I maybe didn’t know before, or I didn’t know them in this way. I don’t think it was new information, but I think the perspective that she shared with me was a new angle to look at that or to know that particular trauma story in my life.
So that was in August. We said let’s definitely meet up again. We both enjoyed catching up and getting together. Like I said, if you ever have that opportunity to do that, take it because at least for me, it was just… it was a delightful evening, and it was one of the best conversations I think I’ve had in my life.
So fast forward to last week, and I had talked to a couple of colleagues, coworkers at work last Tuesday, so this was the day of the first presidential debate, and I had talked to a couple of coworkers. One of my clients had asked, “Are you watching the debate tonight?” And my answer was, “I just don’t know that that’s going to be good for my mental health, so I will read about it after the fact, but I don’t think it’s going to be good for me to watch it live.”
I came home from work, and my younger daughter was there, and she’s like, “Mom, are you going to watch the debate tonight?” And I gave the same answer, you know, “I just don’t know that that’s going to be something that’s good for my mental health, so I will read about it after the fact, but I don’t think it’s going to be good for me to watch it live.”
About five minutes before the debate is set to start and air on TV, my older two kids who don’t live at our house started a text thread, and so it was the two of them, and they were including me in it, so they were talking about the debate and that they were both watching it. So I replied and said, “I’m not going to watch it.” Again, same answer. “I don’t think it’s going to be good for my mental health. I think I know what my limits are, and that’s just not going to be something that’s going to be good for me to do.”
Both of my kids started like, “Mom, I can’t believe you’re not going to watch the debate. You always watch debates.” And I was like, “I typically watch debates. I just don’t know that this year it’s going to be good for my mental health.” My one daughter, she pushed it a little bit more, and she probably wasn’t really pressuring me, but she was like, “Mom, you raised us to that in order to be good citizens of our country and to be informed when we vote, part of that is knowing the candidates, watching the debate, hearing what they say, and here you are, not going to watch the debate.”
I still wasn’t going to watch the debate. I don’t know how long it was. So they kept texting back and forth in this text thread that I’m a part of, so I’m seeing their texts back and forth once the debate started and they were kind of texting with each other, and I’m also part of that text thread, so I’m receiving these texts about the debate, and so finally I was like, okay, okay, I’m going to watch. So I turned it on, and I started watching the debate, and the debate was what, like 90 minutes, and I’m not sure how long… maybe 15 minutes in is when I started to watch the debate, and I think I watched for about 35 minutes, and had to… I was like, I’ve got to tap out. I can’t do this anymore.
So I’m watching the debate, and again, I watched the debates in 2016. I had a lot of clients who would come in the week after the debates for their session, and they were highly triggered by what had happened in the debate, more so than I’ve ever had in my professional career thus far, and I didn’t find that I was necessarily triggered. I didn’t necessarily like some of the things that happened in the 2016 presidential debates. I certainly had opinions about some things in the 2016 presidential debates, but I wasn’t necessarily triggered, which was good, and that was easier for me to kind of help clients work through their own triggers that came up as they watched those debates.
So I kind of turned the debate on kind of expecting the same thing. I probably wasn’t going to like it, probably… I might get angry, I might get frustrated with how the debate was going. I didn’t anticipate getting a trauma response, and I didn’t anticipate it being this particular trauma response. So I’m watching the debate, and I find myself like massaging where my heart is. My husband kind of looks at me, and he’s like, “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “My heart is like beating out of my chest. I think I might have a heart attack. It is beating so fast and so loud and so hard.” Again, I’m just kind of massaging that area on my chest over my heart to try to like calm it down.
Then at one point, my husband, he kind of felt my heartbeat, and he was like, oh yeah, that’s like beating fast. That’s kind of like it’s beating out of your chest. I was like, “I know. I know. This is bad.” I just started to feel it throughout my body. Now again, you would think well yeah, of course you’re feeling it throughout your body. Your heart rate is fast. I don’t know… I don’t have like pulse oximeters at home or anything, so I don’t know how fast my heartbeat was, but it was fast and it was… I don’t know what other word to use than loud. It wasn’t loud like my husband could hear it, but I could, and I don’t know when I’ve felt that before.
So I’m trying to do my 4-4-4 breathing. I’m breathing in to the count of four, holding it to the count of four, breathing out to the count of four, do it again, and then do it again, and then do it again because it’s not really working. So then I kind of got up because I was sitting down, so I kind of got up, I felt a little bit frozen in my spot, so I was like, okay, get up, get up and star walking around, so I just started pacing around the room a little bit and again trying to do my 4-4-4 breathing and kind of massaging my heart area, making sure I’m doing belly breathing, so I’ve got my hand on my belly, making sure that when I inhale, my belly goes out, and then it kind of descends as I exhale and blow out the air.
I’m trying to do these things that typically I can kind of do when I get nervous or maybe when I’m a little bit anxious, those are kind of my go-to things to calm myself down and get myself out of kind of a heightened state. And it wasn’t working. I’m like pacing and…. Like at this point it had not occurred to me that this was a trauma response. I just knew what was happening. I knew my heart was beating. I knew I was shaky inside. If somebody were to look at me, it’s not like I was shaking, but internally, I felt very shaky inside, and I just kind of felt frozen.
So like I said, maybe about 30 minutes in, I said to my husband, “I think I’m having a trauma response.” And he knows that language. He understands that, and he was kind of like, “Oh, yeah, okay.” And I said, this is when I was saying, “I haven’t had this particular trauma response in years,” and he was like, “Yeah, maybe decades, plural, decades.” And I was like, “I know.”
A much more common trauma response for me that I typically have now if I have a trauma response, I don’t always necessarily take a step back. Sometimes it’s not… I just can’t like physically take a step back, but I feel myself emotionally kind of take a step back and things get very slow for me, not necessarily shut down. I wouldn’t say I shut down, but things move slowly and my attention to detail, my observation skills get very heightened and I am watching everything that’s happened, and it’s kind of in a feeling of like slow motion.
That’s a more typical trauma response for me, and that’s the one that probably is more common amongst my trauma responses, and so again this one I think that’s why maybe it took me a while to figure out what this was, like a good half hour probably it took me to be like, wait a minute, I think this is a trauma response. Once I knew that and I was like, oh, okay… I mean my husband said to me, “What’s coming up for you?” When I told him it was a trauma response, he said, “What’s coming up for you?”
And I said so part of my trauma story, like I said I’m the second of six kids, and from a fairly young age, my older sister and I, we always shared a bedroom until she moved out and went to college, and so we shared a bedroom down in the basement. For years, our basement was not finished. I mean, my parents finished this one bedroom in the basement, but the rest of the basement was unfinished, and so my sister and I slept in the basement together, and then eventually my two brothers, the third and fourth kids in the family, they moved into the room next to us, and it wasn’t until my two brothers were older, like teenagers, that they actually finished the basement of our house. So my brothers for a while, they kind of lived in an unfinished bedroom, kind of put together like a bedroom, but it was unfinished.
So we would be downstairs, and my bedroom was right under my parents’ bedroom, so there were times that my sister would wake up. I’ve always been a pretty sound sleeper. Once I’m tired, I go to sleep, and I sleep through the night. I’ve never had a problem falling asleep, staying asleep, until COVID-19. COVID-19 has me all jacked up when it comes to sleep. But my sister would hear my parents start fighting, and she would typically wake me up and send me upstairs to go make sure everything was okay or that nothing bad happened.
So I would go upstairs and kind of sneak down the hall towards my parents’ bedroom, and I mean most of the time I was pretty young, like I think this was happening maybe from the age of 7, 8, 9, 10 on up, and so this would be happening, I’d kind of sneak down the hallway. I don’t know what I was going to do. There were a few times I would let my presence be known to try to make them stop or to deescalate the situation. I can see now that that’s what I was doing, but a lot of the time, I would just lay in the hallway and watch them fight, and I would watch between the doorjamb.
I don’t know why they didn’t close their bedroom door, but their bedroom door was typically open, so I would sneak down the hall and lay where I could watch them between the doorjamb, and I would watch them fight to make sure nothing bad happened. I mean, bad things happened, and I had a front row seat to that, and I was watching their fight play out.
Like I said, there were a couple of times where I would kind of wander in like I just woke up and had a nightmare or something like that to try to get them focused on me and stop the fighting, but probably most of the fights I would just lay there in the hallway and watch. I don’t remember feeling anything other than just watching them fight, and so that’s… I was putting some pieces together the night of the debate, and I said to my husband, I think just watching this play out, Chris Wallace is trying maybe to moderate this debate. He was trying. I will say that. He was trying to moderate this debate, but it was clearly off the rails, and nobody was getting it back on the rails.
I just said I think just watching this play out takes me back to those young ages laying in the hallway, watching my parents fight and hoping it doesn’t escalate, or being afraid that it would escalate. I don’t know. I would imagine this is how I felt laying in the hallway watching them. I don’t recall, but I would imagine this is how I felt. It makes sense to me that as a young kid, I would be afraid and my heart rate would increase and all of the things that I was feeling that Tuesday night, all of that would have happened as a young child.
So I mean that was good that my husband asked me, “Where are you going back to?” Ok, let’s talk about the history because sometimes I think in our trauma response, we’re meshing all the times together, so there’s not really a then and a now. It’s now. All of this feels current. All of this feels true right now in my present, so that was good. He knows to do that to say like, “Where are you going to back then?” So I start to get anchored a little bit to time and space, and I can start to say, okay, back here when I’m this age and this I think is what’s coming up for me as I’m watching this play out on the TV. I think that’s where I’m going to in my body is watching this play out between my two parents.
So that was helpful, and then I could also start to say, okay so now I’m 50 years old. I’m not 7 years old. I’m not 9 years old watching this happen, so at 50 years old, I have options. I have choices. I can do it differently. I can have a different ending, and I said to my husband, “I need to turn this off.” And he was fine with that. He’s like, “Yeah, turn it off. I don’t care.”
So I just texted my two girls, and I was like, I’m sorry, I’m out. I can’t keep watching this. I just logged off the TV, I put my phone down, I didn’t want to keep getting their texts. It was fine that they were texting each other, but I just knew I had to step out of this. I had to do what I could at my current age so that I wasn’t staying in my trauma longer than I needed to, or longer than was helpful for me.
So again I was still trying to do my breathing. Peter Levine talks a lot about how when our body goes into that limbic system part of our brain comes on board and the body prepares for fight or to run away or to freeze that our body will literally just dump chemicals. It dumps adrenaline, it dumps cortisol into our system, and then if we’re not fighting our way out of this, if we’re not running away, we’re not getting the heck out of there and running, if we are just kind of going into a freeze state or all of a sudden maybe it’s a false alarm, we’re left with all of this adrenaline, we’re left with all of this cortisol that has been pumped into our system to prepare for that , and we haven’t used it, but we have all of this excess that was preparing us to use it, and then we didn’t use it, and what do we do with that in our system?
So I had that awareness, and I was just like, okay, I’m going to walk around, still going to pace back and forth, I’m going to walk around my house, so I opened up the space that I was pacing in, and I did just start shaking. Peter Levine will say that this is how animals a lot of times like if they go into a freeze state, whether that’s they do that, they go into a freeze state and play dead or maybe it’s a human-induced freeze state, like they’re hit with a tranquilizer dart or something like that, that coming out of it, they will shake as a way to release those chemicals that were dumped into their system, and Peter Levine says that’s helpful for human beings. That’s a natural way that our system has to discharge all of that energy that got dumped into our system, and we have to expel it. We have to discharge it.
But a lot of times for human beings, that prefrontal cortex part of our brain gets in the way and is like, well that’s weird. That’s strange. You’ll look odd if you do that. Well I’m at home. I know my husband loves me, so I don’t care that he thinks I’m weird, and he didn’t think I was weird, but I literally just kind of walked around my house shaking, shaking my hands, shaking my legs, jumping up and down a little bit just to kind of discharge all of that energy, and then I had a massive headache, which probably was because my heart was racing and pounding so hard.
So I just got this massive, massive headache, and then I was just like, I’m exhausted, and I just said to my husband, I’m getting in my pajamas and I’m going to bed, and I don’t care that it’s 8:30 at night. I need to reset my whole nervous system, and the only way I know to do that is to sleep. So I did. I went to bed. I slept well. I woke up the next day with no headache. I woke up in a different state. I was able to shift the trauma and the beliefs that come with that into a place of like, yeah that was then, and I had a response to a current trigger, but that’s not my current reality.
So again, as most therapists do, we have to practice what we preach. What we’re teaching to our clients, we have to apply in our own lives, and when I say to clients you’ve got to know your trauma story inside and out, you need to know the likely triggers and what those triggers plug into, what the beliefs are, what the physiological sensations are. If you’re feeling stuck, if you’re feeling trapped, you’ve got to change that narrative and you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to move and you’ve got to respond in a way that starts to separate out the past from the present and the younger years from your current adult years.