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The Limitations of Talk Therapy When it Comes to Triggers

I remember going through my own process in therapy. I initially worked with a marriage and family therapist who was big into helping me find my own inner truth and my own values. However, the more that I became self-aware, the more that I started to feel helpless to change. In fact, it was almost like I was seeing all of my patterns and behaviors that I wanted to change, but that despite understanding them, I would continue to respond in the same way. While I did not know it at the time, this is because we were accessing the logical part of the brain, rather than the part of the brain that keeps us safe, regardless of what you think about it.

The survival response comes from the nervous system and can often be shaped in childhood. For example, imagine that you grew up in a home where one of your parents would yell or get violent when things didn’t go its way. You quickly learned that by fighting back or arguing, they would get angrier and would lead to a worse outcome. You wished that you could leave, but where could you go? Therefore, you had nothing left but to please them and read their mood, so that you could respond in a way that would keep you safe. Now, when someone gets angry, you find yourself immediately jumping to pleasing them even though you really learned that you wanted to speak your mind and that this way of responding to anger was no longer helpful to you.

The reason for this is that as we grow up, our nervous system gets shapes in ways that keeps us safe. In the scenario presented above, when we return to the basics of fight, flight, freeze and fawn, the nervous system learns that arguing made the situation worse, and that running away could compromise the physical safety. Therefore, there was only the option of freezing and pleasing the parent, because if they feel better, then they will harm you less. And while it was highly adaptive and smart, now it might continuously force you to respond in this way, even though the situation may not be dangerous at all. Another issue with that is that freezing when no longer in a threatening situation teaches us to suppress our true self, who we are and our needs. We can become more attuned with others than with our own self. And this can inadvertently lead to depression, since all the survival energy stops us from expressing ourselves. We can also feel like we give out more than we receive, and can feel exhausted.

When it comes to healing that, talk therapy can sometimes have limitation. In fact, our primal survival responses get stimulated by a part of the brain called the amygdala. Its role is to detect a threat and respond appropriately. Opposite from the amygdala, our prefrontal cortex (another part of our brain) has the role to help us think rationally and logically, express our personality, and think of how to act in accordance with our internal goals. This part of the brain gets activated during talk therapy. However, in the case of trauma or even in the example presented above, when a threat is perceived, it has been proven that the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) actually shuts down. What that means is that our rational thinking is no longer online and we will respond from primal functions, such as fighting (arguing, yelling, violence), fleeing (leaving, running away, ignoring others), freezing (staying quiet, staring blankly, leaving our bodies, not being present) or Fawning (pleasing others, taking care of other’s needs first). If we put this in the context of talk therapy, it means that on the one hand, talk therapy really helps us understand ourselves better and can bring tremendous healing. It can help us understand what we want out of life and process pains and struggles. However, while this understanding is greatly helpful, it can become inaccessible when we are faced with a situation that our brain perceives as threatening. Our bodies respond in ways that has kept us safe in the past, even though we have figured out that we no longer want to respond that way.

The good news is that all is not hopeless. Somatic Experiencing is one modality that actually works with the Amygdala rather than the prefrontal cortex. It does so by focusing on the body sensations and responses, rather than the logical part of our brains. It might be good to know which situation that you get triggered by in order to prepare, but of course this isn’t always possible. Then, before or during those situations where you tend to get triggered, notice your feet on the ground and really tune into the sensations that they bring to you. Feel the support of the ground holding your weight, the cold sensation of it, etc. You can use this tool anytime, even when in relationship with people as it only takes a second. Another thing that you can do is find a place in your body that feels safe or calm, and noticing the sensations of it. What happens is that both of these can signal your brain that in this moment, you are safe. Rather than trying to think logically that you are safe and convince yourself of it (the prefrontal cortex), these two examples will instead show your body that you are safe by experiencing safety. Of course, if you are really in an unsafe situation, it’s important to feel that so you can respond appropriately. Sometime, when in the middle of feeling triggered, if you are able to come back online, some people find it useful to see a big stop sign or to say stop. What that does is that it interrupts the habitual patterns from doing what they are used to. In addition, it allows the time to pause, which can give time to think, especially before doing or saying something.

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