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Empowered through Understanding: Trauma, Triggers, and the Brain

 

One plump, juicy, dusty purple Concord grape. That’s all it took for a sudden, overwhelming mix of rage, loss, sadness, and panicky fear to flood over me, leaving me sitting in my kitchen, shaking, heart pounding, with tears streaming down my face. Then, blind-sided, I wondered, What the hell just happened?

The short answer: That one tiny grape was a trauma trigger, though I’d had no idea before popping it into my mouth that it would be.

It turns out that the smell (and taste) of that one little grape lit up my olfactory bulb, a mass of tissue and receptor cells at the back of the nasal cavity. The olfactory bulb then activated the amygdala in my brain. The amygdala stores sensory fragments - remnants of things we’ve smelled, tasted, seen, heard and touched – when we experience different events in our lives. And those sensory fragments get encoded in our amygdala with whatever emotions we felt during those same events. (1)

So sensory fragments of the smell (2) and taste of Concord grapes were buried in my amygdala and connected with some event(s) or experience(s) where I’d felt rage, loss, sadness, fear. And with one bite of one tiny grape, without any warning or any idea why, those feelings rushed over me once again.

All of this happened in a nanosecond. And that’s how trauma triggers work.  

The amygdala is tightly connected to the hippocampus region of the brain, where specific memories are stored. So while the amygdala stores the sensory fragments and encodes those with the emotional significance of events, it’s the hippocampus that stores specific detailed memories of the actual events themselves. (1)

It took me a while to surface and then work through a jumble of long-ago memories of events in my life to figure out the connections between past events, Concord grapes, and the intense feelings that had suddenly come over me after eating one.

But not before I lashed out at my husband, asking in him an accusing tone, “Where did you get these Concord grapes?” Baffled by my anger, he said, “Central Market. Why? What’s wrong?” And at that moment, I couldn’t say – because I didn’t yet know.

This is another common feature of getting triggered: it may result in us lashing out or reacting to current events and people who had nothing to do with the original trauma in ways neither we nor they understand.

After giving myself some time to practice a few of the strategies I’ve learned for trauma healing and coping with triggers, including deep breathing, meditation, and exercise, I spent some time reflecting on and journaling about the memories that had surfaced. I also talked with supportive, trusted people in my life - my Dad and my husband - about these memories and experiences. (3)

In the summer of 1970, when I was nine years old and headed into fourth grade, my parents, two younger brothers and I moved to a new town, miles away from the rambling family farm where I’d spent the first years of my life. We moved into a house in town, and, in the fall, I started attending a new school.

Our new house had a large grape arbor in the back yard filled with plump, juicy, dusty purple clusters of Concord grapes. My Dad soon got into making wine with the grapes. And my Mom got into drinking it, along with the vodka that had been her drink of choice for several years already.

With this move, Mom’s daily life and routine had changed drastically, as all three of us kids were now in school all day, she no longer had the demands of daily farm work to keep her occupied, she went from being a farm wife to a “townie”, and was now away from the circle of family and friends that had surrounded us at the farm. She was only 29 years old, with three kids under the age of 10.

I had started to become aware of Mom’s drinking when we’d lived at the farm. At the new house, with all of these changes, Mom’s drinking got noticeably worse. Over the next two years, living in that house, I often got home from school to find her fast asleep on the sofa, with the curtains closed. And I often found a glass on the end table next to the sofa with the sticky, musky-sweet smelling residue of the Concord grape wine that filled the white plastic buckets and heavy glass jugs in Dad’s basement “fermenting room.”

Some days, she’d be awake when we got home and would greet us with a hug and kiss, with that sickly sweet smell on her breath. Sometimes she’d try to talk to us about our days at school, but she couldn’t talk clearly and the things she was saying or asking us didn’t make any sense. Then she’d get angry and would get up and walk away from us. Sometimes, she’d load the three of us into the back seat of the car and drive around with us, running errands. We didn’t have the language of “impaired driving” or “DUI” back then, but I was often scared, sitting in the back seat with my brothers, as Mom drove in ways I knew weren’t safe and I knew that her drinking messed her up, physically and mentally.  

I was angry with Mom for her drinking. I felt a deep sense of loss and sadness about how her drinking took her “away”, emotionally, from me and my brothers. I was scared to ride in the car with her at the wheel.

And through those childhood experiences for those two years, my developing brain was recording these memories in the hippocampus. My amygdala was encoding my feelings about what was going on with Mom and connecting those feelings to sensory fragments of the smell, taste and sight of the Concord grapes that made the wine that, in my nine year-old mind, was the cause of all of this heartache.

Though Mom’s drinking continued, largely unabated, until her death two years ago, and I’ve had numerous other experiences and feelings related to her drinking over the past 48 years, these long-buried childhood memories associated with Mom’s drinking and Concord grapes caught me completely by surprise. I hadn’t seen, thought about or tasted a Concord grape for 48 years. I had no idea a grape could or would be a trigger for me. But now that I do, I’m empowered and I can continue my healing journey.

The same goes for ALL of us. When we understand how trauma affects our brains and corresponding emotional and physical responses, how being triggered may affect us personally, given our own experiences and forms of trauma, what our own internal and external triggers might be, and effective ways to cope with them and move toward healing, we are empowered through understanding to become healthier, stronger and more whole.

RESOURCES:

(1) For more about the amygdala, the hippocampus and how they work together to store memories, emotions and sensory fragments, see: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flas...peu/i_04_cr_peu.html

(2) For a diagram explaining a bit of the neuroscience behind how the sense of smell in particular is connected to memories and associated emotions, see the link below. Smells have been shown by multiple research studies to trigger stronger and clearer emotional memories – both positive and negative - than other sensory inputs. Disclaimer: the diagram linked below is from a company marketing essential oils – but after looking at dozens of more scientific and academic diagrams, this one is the most straightforward explanation I’ve found so far.

https://www.freelion.ca/upload...-1-789x1024_orig.png

(3) For a good basic overview of trauma, symptoms and helpful approaches to healing from trauma, see https://www.helpguide.org/arti...hological-trauma.htm

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Comments (3)

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Melanie G Snyder posted:

Hey Cissy- thank you so much for your lovely affirmation - and yes, I'd be honored to have this shared on the main ACEs page. Thanks so much for offering to do that.

Blessings,

Melanie

Melanie:
I just saw this on the home page today. THANKS FOR DOING THIS. I love this piece. I'm sorry for slow response. I am still catching up post ACEs Conference. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, writing and experience. Cissy

Melanie:
Is it o.k. to share this on the main ACEs page? You write and inform and share all at the same time. Thank you for sharing this and breaking it down and also sharing what you did to work with this unexpected trigger. I always admire ALL the work you are doing. Thank you for sharing!
Cissy

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