On Trauma, Triggers and Re-Traumatization

Many of you who read this blog are already familiar with concepts like “betrayal trauma” and “triggers”. That’s great. I want to throw another one at you today, which is “re-traumatization” and hopefully by the time you finish this two-part post you will not only understand more about “what is going on with me,” you will feel more empowered to take action to help yourself.

"Betrayal trauma" is a term we used to describe the results of two separate thngs: 1. the sudden, shocking discovery that “my husband has betrayed me” (and possibly "has long-standing patterns of betraying me") and 2. a pattern of long-standing attachment-injury sometimes combined with abuse.

The discovery-related betrayal trauma is sometimes referred to as a traumatic “life-event.”  That's because the moment of discovery/disclosure is a one-time event that is outside of our control, unexpected and has a highly negative effect on us (the three criteria for “trauma”). For some women this event may not cause trauma symptoms, however, it’s likely to still register as an event causing “acute stress,” which will also have an impact on our hearts, spirits and bodies for some time to come.

The second  type of “betrayal trauma,” which impacts many of us, is an attachment-related trauma. In this type of trauma, the person to whom I have my main attachment—in other words:

  • Who I rely on for all manner of safety and protection
  • With whom I felt I belonged
  • To whom I’ve given exclusive love
  • Who has helped to shape my sense of significance and value (and whose significance and value I have supported and helped shape)
  • To whom I’ve been most vulnerable

has  betrayed me and/or turned against me. Disclosure or discovery gives a high-voltage “turned against” jolt to our systems, but for many women this “turned against” has been a longstanding position of their husbands. Coercive and/or controlling behaviors throughout the marriage will have caused this type of trauma. Neglect and unloving behaviors as well. Such attachment injuring, abusive behaviors are extremely common with those who are in the throes of an addiction, or who live in shame because of a “hidden life” with problematic sexual behaviors.

Triggers vs Re-Traumatization

Thus our trauma is about sexual betrayal, but also much more… it can be about domestic violence, narcissistic abuse, sexual rejection, or just plain having our attachment figure regularly turn against us and prove unsafe.

Anytime our husband replays these betrayal/attachment injuring behaviors, which can happen even once he’s in recovery, we can experience traumatization… or re-traumatization since these types of trauma (or acute stressors) hook into related past traumas. In such moments, we may find ourselves experiencing the “fight, flight or freeze” symptoms so commonly associated with traumatic events.

Triggers, on the other hand, are when something in our present environment reminds the “self-protection” mechanisms in our brain of past traumatic or acutely stressful events. In moments of trigger, we can re-experience the symptoms we underwent during a traumatic moment. In fact, we may even believe we are back in that traumatic moment (e.g., like a war veteran thinking he’s back in Vietnam), or we may enter into those traumatic memories and lose track of the present, physical world (i.e.,  dissociation). Many times we will experience the trigger in less extreme forms, but still with the sense of the past “pressing in on” our present and bringing trauma symptoms (especially fear) with it. When trauma triggers are regular, intense and definitely about past trauma (not present) we may be diagnosed by a psychologist as has having post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. If our betrayal trauma is the "ongoing patterns" kind we may even be facing "complex PTSD."

To the person suffering the symptoms, it may feel like there’s not much difference between re-traumatization, being triggered or PTSD. It all stinks and it makes life hard. However, next week I’ll talk more about why it does matter… as well as steps we can take to move beyond these states.

When we want to turn off the trauma "alarm bells" in our brain, one of the first things we can do is begin to slow and regulate our breathing. Peaceful music (slower tempo, gentle tones) also help us regulate ourselves.

This article was written by:
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Lisa Taylor

Lisa is a PSA trauma survivor, counselor and award-winning author living with her kids & recovering husband in New Zealand. She runs groups and sees international clients via Naked Truth Recovery.


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