When you’ve experienced trauma, your body keeps the score. This means that certain situational stimuli—be it sights, smells, or even sounds—can jog your memories in ways that end your thoughts and feelings spiraling into that former time and place. When this happens, you end up doing certain things or engaging in certain behaviors so that you can keep from drowning in the memories of your painful past.
While your coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns may seem normal or even noticeable in your eyes, sometimes outsiders see these things differently but don’t know the story behind your reasons why because they don’t realize that sometimes you just do things because you suddenly feel triggered.
1. You suddenly go silent.
You can be laughing mid-conversation and then, without any notice, deja vu hits and sends you spiraling. As you try to process your emotions and cope with your body’s physical sensations, you lose your place in the conversation. If the other people involved in the conversation don’t know you well, they may think that you’re disinterested or being rude. If you could simply tell them about your troubled past and how a smell or phrase jogged your memory, maybe your withdrawal would make a bit more sense.
2. You appear tense or “on edge.”
When something in the room triggers memories of a more painful moment in your past, your senses go into overdrive. Unfortunately, this often causes your muscles to tense up and your body language to send signals that you’re on the verge of a breakdown. Your eyes may open wide, your limbs may stiffen, and even some hairs may stand on edge. Nobody else will understand why you’re suddenly sitting on the edge of your seat, but you know exactly why you feel the way you do.
3. You seem unfocused and distracted.
Many people who experience trauma dive into hypervigilance to protect themselves from additional harmful experiences. While you constantly look over your shoulder and keep tabs on everyone else in the room, people around you may think that you’re just scatterbrained or are inattentive. However, the complete opposite is true—you’re completely cued into everything and everyone and your senses are running full force.
4. You ask to leave or simply walk away.
Sometimes your surroundings make you feel so uncomfortable that you have no choice but to remove yourself from the situation. Your skin feels like it’s crawling, your breathing changes, and your legs feel ready to run. To outsiders it makes no sense why you must suddenly leave without notice, but you can’t help but flee when everything inside of you starts screaming, “Escape!” Fight or flight responses are often innate and unavoidable, no matter what others may think or say.
5. You put up walls and become defensive.
When you experience abuse or other forms of mistreatment, you often feel powerless and out of control. In the aftermath, you learn how to close yourself off, harden your heart, and constantly go on the defensive when someone starts to stomp all over you. Many people don’t understand why you seem so combative or why you put up such strong walls, but to you it’s better to shut everyone out than experience similar types of pain to those that lie in your past.
6. You engage in noticeable nervous tics.
Most people develop certain coping mechanisms and reactive devices to handle flashbacks and bodily sensations that come in the aftermath of traumatic life events. These nervous tics often become subconscious habits that you engage in without even realizing it’s happening. However, your friends and other loved ones may not understand why you frequently bite your lip, twist your hair, bite your nails, or pick at your skin. In fact, they may even call you out on it and claim that these habits “aren’t normal” or say that you’re “weird.” It’s important to remain mindful of your actions, but also remember that sometimes people merely don’t understand what it means to feel triggered.
Post-traumatic triggers happen whether we like it or not. These are only six small things that you or others may do to help battle your fears and other feelings about parts of your past. However, when we understand the method behind the madness, we can engage in conversations that ultimately help us all cope with the painful memories that linger inside our minds.