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When Current Events Trigger Your Past Trauma

Most people have dealt with some form of trauma in their lifetime. Some have sought professional help while other people relied on their support system of family and friends to assist them through healing. Others may have never dealt with their trauma at all. They may have found a way to numb out their reactions to their trauma (e.g. substance use, intimacy disorders, overworking, eating disorders, etc.). Or they may have forgotten memories of the traumatic event.

The Meadows Senior Fellow, Dr. Tian Dayton, recently wrote an article for the ACEs Connection Blog site that beautifully describes why traumatic memories can be forgotten or hazy. Dr. Dayton’s article, The Nature of Traumatic Memory: Why Our Memories of Terrifying Events are Spotty, outlines the brain functions that occur during trauma and how trauma reactions can be triggered, making the traumatized person feel re-traumatized even when they are in a safe environment.

I watch the news and the trends on social media. Lately, it has been clear that current events can be a major trigger for people who have been traumatized in their past. It does not even seem to matter how they dealt with their past trauma; certain things just trigger an emotional reaction even in those who have been on a long-term healing journey.

Dr. Dayton’s article explains how sensory and emotional memories of trauma are imprinted in our brain and are long lasting; “decades and decades” of impact on our emotional and sensory perceptions of ourselves and the world. In other words, experiencing an emotional reminder of our past trauma when hearing about current traumatic events in the world is a normal response.

Just in the past week, I have seen three current event issues that are lighting up social media with people who have experienced triggers to past traumas. The first one I will mention is probably the easiest to write about since it is not even a true news event. It is a movie. While the issues plaguing Jackson and Ally in ‘A Star is Born’ are real issues to many people, the movie does not even claim to be based on a true story. However, the emotional responses that people experience from the tragic impact of addiction, relationship struggles, family issues, and suicide are very real and those emotions surface during this movie. I went to the movie; I was crying and so was everyone else in that theater. You could hear the muffled sobs and sniffles over the beautiful voice of Lady Gaga singing her final song. People were still wiping their tears on the way to their cars, talking about who and what the movie reminded them of and represented in their own lives and histories. Social media is swarming with stories of the emotional impact this movie had on those who watched it. People are profoundly impacted as they reflect on the ways in which the issues represented in this movie have affected their own lives.

The second current event is the limousine crash that occurred in New York over the weekend and killed 20 people. The difficult part of writing about this tragedy is the sheer loss experienced by families who lost loved ones in this senseless wreck. Four sisters were lost from one family, two brothers were lost from another family, young newlyweds were lost, and the pedestrians that were struck were a man who is a father and his father in law – meaning a woman lost her husband and her father and a child lost their father and grandfather in an instant. The loss from this tragedy is overwhelming. Massive losses like this one can trigger grief in people who have lost loved ones in a similar manner, who have lost multiples loved ones from one tragedy, or those who have lost such young loved ones. Grieving such traumatic losses can last a lifetime and so can the emotional triggers that accompany these losses.

The third current event, and by far the most difficult to write about due to the highly charged controversial debate surrounding it, is the recent Supreme Court nomination and ensuing confirmation hearings. Regardless of who or what you believe and regardless of the political controversy one thing is painfully clear; many people with a history of being sexually abused were highly triggered by this entire process. This triggering is nothing new. Sexual abuse survivors have been triggered by the Sandusky case and Penn State cover up, by Bill Cosby and his drugging of victims, by the slew of Hollywood allegations, by the Catholic church and the wide-spread institutional cover up of sexual abuse by priests, etc, etc, etc.

The power dynamics of the accused versus the accusers in these cases seem to add an intolerable edge to an already traumatic reality. This most recent case seems to have been triggering to even more people than before or maybe the sheer volume of cases piled on top of each other is what makes it seem more triggering. Sexual allegations in these cases were questioned, at least in part, based on the accuser’s delay in reporting.

Of the cases I mentioned above, most reports did not occur until long after the incident. The accusers came forward with the sexual abuse allegations, their intentions were questioned, and their lives picked apart – they were chastised and ridiculed and not believed. Many sexual abuse survivors can relate to this same treatment and experience a visceral response to watching this happen to someone else. Regardless of the truth about the accusations, many sexual abuse victims are left feeling further disempowered and dismissed and hopeless. Their sexual trauma and their feelings about it are triggered and many are not sure how to cope with the aftermath of the triggering event.

By Dr. Georgia Fourlas, LCSW, LISAC, CSAT-S
Clinical Director of Workshops
Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows

Rio Retreat Center and The Meadows treatment program are world renowned for their expertise in the treatment of trauma, addiction, and other behavioral health issues. The Meadows offers inpatient and residential treatment options and has longer term outpatient treatment options. Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows offers a variety of five-day workshops designed to fit all different sorts of trauma and relational issues. Survivors is our signature workshop and addresses childhood trauma. Survivors II can include adult trauma or be a continuation of work on childhood trauma. Healing Heartache is a workshop that helps participants address unresolved and complicated grief and loss. THRIVE workshop utilizes Dr. Tian Dayton’s Relational Trauma Repair model to address relational trauma. The Family Matters workshop is designed to help the whole family heal together and is highly customizable to address your family’s unique challenges and struggles. Additionally, there are many other workshops that can be found on the Rio Retreat Center’s website. For more information or to enroll in one of our workshops, visit our website or call to speak with one of our intake specialists at 1-800-244-4949.

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