You can probably think of an occasion where the feelings you were experiencing at a particular moment were stronger, more intense than the situation really deserved. Something from your past had been awakened or ‘triggered’. Sometimes people are aware of what these memories are; sometimes they just experience the emotional charge from the past event.
These awakened memories can be one of the major elements of anxiety attacks, panic attacks, phobias and PTSD.
Briefly, what’s going on in your brain when this happens is that your more ancient brain structures, those associated with fundamental survival, are starting to take control. Something has awakened these regions in your brain because your brain detected a potential threat. This ‘flight or fight’ system has detected a match between what’s going on in that moment for you and some past difficult experience.
When this survival mechanism starts to take over, the thinking brain (the big bit at the front) starts to shut down. This front brain is associated with you as a thinking conscious person. It is also involved with social connection. You may recognise that when you’re triggered, especially with a strong event, you’re unable to think clearly. This is because that big thinking bit at the front of your brain is currently shut down.
What you can do to awaken your front, thinking brain
Firstly, if the memories/events are big and problematic for you, there are ways to take their emotional potency out of them. I use Havening and Memory Reconsolidation. Please call me if you think this is an issue for you and we can talk about it.
There are numerous ways you can help yourself. Remember that when the ancient survival mechanism in your brain takes over, your thinking brain is not available to you. Preparation is the key. This requires you to do some planning ahead of the next triggering event.
A way to re-engage the thinking brain, one that has been used for thousands of years, and that is backed by the evidence of modern brain scans, is to reach out and connect with other people. The simple act of connecting with other human beings starts to awaken the front brain, forcing it to start working again. It also triggers a safety response in our brains.
As a simple solution, plan in advance who you can talk with – by phone or even text message? So long as your brain perceives this human connection then it will start to awaken your thinking mechanisms. The stronger the connection, the more you interact, the more this brain structure will wake up.
You won’t need to contact the other person every time you’re triggered, just as a way of coping with the more challenging times when you realise that your flight or fight centre is so strongly taking over that you’re finding it hard to think clearly. Some clients I work with will need to do this almost every time; others will have set up the connection with their key person but only use it when they know that things are getting really difficult.
But what if your lifestyle doesn’t permit you to reach out to connect with another person, for example, if you’re at work?
What can also work very well is using our imagination to connect with another being. Remember that to our brains, a well-imagined event is indistinguishable from an actual event. Religious figures are often chosen: imagining being in the presence of a religious figure and interacting with them. Of course, it doesn’t need to be a religious figure; other people I know have had success with imagining themselves in the presence of a great philosopher, or scientist, for example. The secret to making this strategy work for you is to deliberately practise, even when there is no triggering going on.
Your triggering mechanism is a natural defensive brain process. With a little understanding of what is going on between your ears, you can prepare in advance, ready for the next time it happens. You can practise strategies that will help you to be prepared to help your thinking brain regain control.