Exploring Triggers

We absorb information from our environment through the 5 senses;

1. Sight | Visual

light and colour is detected by cells in the retina at the back of the eye.

2. Sound | Auditory

hair cells in the ear move in response to specific frequencies of sound.

3. Taste | Gustatory

taste buds on the tongue react to salt, sour, bitter, sweet and umami tastes in our food.

4. Smell | Olfactory

special cells in the nose detect different chemicals in the air that we breathe in. We also detect the flavours in food as air moves from our mouth up into the back of the nasal cavity.

5. Touch | Tactile

various receptors in our skin can detect different types of touch, including pressure and vibrations.

Our brains are senseless – I’m not being rude, its the truth of the matter, you could stick a pin in the brain and it would feel nothing! Therefore, the information absorbed by the senses is translated into Electro-Chemical Data – information the brain can understand. This process is called Transduction and is undertaken by the nervous system.

Electro chemicals enter the brain through a gateway called the  Thalamus, which distributes packets or modules of data to various parts of the brain. Each module investigates the data in order to make sense of it.

The Thalamus sends some of the data off to the pre-frontal cortex which sits behind the brow – this allows us to have a good think about the experience.

The Thalamus sends some data off to the Amygdala, and its the Amygdala’s job to decide whether something is Rewarding – something we want more of, or Threatening – something we want to get away from.

The Thalamus disturbs data transduced from sensations to different modules of the brain so that we can understand the significance of an experience and what to do about it.  The process of Transduction involves breaking down the sensual experience into small pieces. Theses sensations each have to be transduced and then encoded into the brain. The pieces are then put back together and recoded into a replica – a copy that represents the sensational experience.

We call the replica a Perception, which are made up of smaller pieces known as ‘Percepts’. The module’s of the brain don’t investigate the original experience, but make sense of the experience from the replica;  Perception.

The investigation of this Perception is not the only way we reach a conclusion, but also by drawing on previous perceptions of previous experiences which is known as Bottom Up Processing.


The occipital lobe is the part of the human brain responsible for interpreting information from the eyes and turning it into the world as a person sees it.

The occipital lobe has four different sections, each of which is responsible for different visual functions. The term bottom-up processing is used when we discuss perception. The brain has two ways of processing and perceiving information and that is bottom-up and top-down processing. The occipital lobe is the area that processes vision and in bottom-up processing that is the very first stage. Bottom-up processing starts with information, or energy, from our environment and converting it into action potentials that transmit to the brain, this is called transduction. Our eyes take in this environmental energy and our occipital lobe is responsible for building a visual map or representation of our surroundings before the environmental energy can be converted to action potential in order for our brain to remember - Reference The Cerebral Cortex and Bottom-Up Processing

All experiences are made from sensations and all sensations are transduced into an electro-chemical language that the brain can understand. Almost all data enters the brain through the module called the Thalamus.

Another of the modules of the brain which is core in receiving data is called the Hippocampus. The Hippocampus holds information from moment to moment,  allowing us to remember what we just did a moment ago, while doing what we are doing now, remembering what we are going to do next and remembering why we are doing it.


The Hippocampus holds the immediate past in its short term working memory, so we can string together moment to moment experiences of our life in order that makes sense that will allow us to follow through on what we set out to do.  The Hippocampus can discard the memory or it can send it off to the Cerebral Cortex to be stored in the long term memory.

The Hippocampus sends to storage the memories that are more emotional and discards those that are less emotions. Deciding which memories to store in long term memory and which memories to get rid would be difficult for the Hippocampus itself, as it is impartial to emotion, it simply records the information. It decides which memories  to store with the help of the Amygdala which identifies emotional experiences.

The two are in dialogue with the amygdala telling the hippocampus whether the current experience and short term memory of what just happened a moment ago is potentially a reward or a threat. If its either, the Hippocampus ships it off into storage. If however the Amygdala doesn’t detect threat of reward, the hippocampus discards the memory making it difficult to recall.

In addition to holding information in its short term memory, from the last few moments, the Hippocampus assisted by the Amygdala selects memories for storage and also retrieves memories from long term storage. The Hippocampus must hold these retrieved long term memories that it pulls down from the cerebral cortex in a space next to the short term memories. There is only very limited space in this holding area.

When traumatic memory is recalled into the Hippocampus, we feel the emotion attached to the memory. When we put the memory back into long term storage, the process of putting the memory in & out of storage tends to take the edge off it, becoming less intent as we recall it more and more often, thus reducing the emotional intensity.

This is not the case with PTSD as the emotion does not discharge from the memory, rather if you have PTSD, the memory always has the same emotional intensity and vividness as the original experience, as though you were living it over and over again.  With PTSD, the memory triggers a host of distressing, negative thoughts, self reproach, helplessness, despair, uncomfortable intense vivid memories.

We cannot help people to forget the memory, but we can help to discharge the emotions they experience when they remember it.

EMDR which stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing is a therapy  used to help people recover from distressing events and the problems they have caused, like flashbacks, upsetting thoughts or images, depression or anxiety. The working memory theory of EMDR is considered to be an effective treatment for PTSD.

The Hippocampus has to divide its recourses between holding a memory in its limited space and recalling the answer to a taxing question in the same space. Tow lower the intensity of sensory mental imagery, EMDR comes into play. It is incredibly difficult to hold the memory while distracted with EMDR. The Working Memory theory of EMDR is not effective because of the eye movements itself, but because of the limited attention of the Hippocampus.

When a person becomes ‘Triggered’,  they are being Hijacked by unwanted thoughts and feelings known as an  ‘Emotional Flashback’. Emotional Flashbacks can be External or Internal.  An external emotional flashback can be triggered by an object, person, colour, smell, feeling situation. The ‘Reliving’ of an event or scenario. Someone may smell the familiar scent of a loved who has passed away, and be overcome with emotions as the memory of the loved one is recalled.

In cases of PTSD, the example given is that of a former solider, when the sound of a loud bang causes the solider to run for cover. These two examples of emotional flashbacks are identifiable. In both examples the individuals have been triggered by information absorbed through the senses from their environment; Olfactory (the smell of a familiar perfume) and Auditory ( the sound of a loud noise).

We have an awareness of what may have happened that would cause the ex -solider to run for cover at the sound of a loud bang.

However, in cases of Complex PTSD (CPTSD), which is often caused by prolonged emotional abuse, the emotional flashbacks tend to be internal. The mind and the body flashback to the memory of the emotions of the initial trauma. This trigger however, is unidentifiable because it is emotional only – experienced in the thoughts and bodily sensations, not seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelt.

In cases of CPTSD the emotional flashbacks are sub-conscious and automatic, the sufferer is not consciously  aware of them. The adult with CPTSD who finds themselves in a challenging scenario at work for example, may be reduced to a childlike state and experience feelings of helplessness, worthlessness and abandonment.


Because the emotional flashback is happening out-with the persons awareness, the childlike state of helplessness is automatic. They are reacting to the somatic sensations and Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs). The style of communication when an individual is triggered and operating on auto pilot tends to be; Passive, Aggressive or Passive-Aggressive, which can quickly escalate and cause more trauma.

Learning how to ‘Respond’ rather than ‘React’,  is a strategy we offer to people seeking support through our support groups, workshops and courses.


When triggered, we learn to Stop, to pause. Giving ourselves some time to think.


Paying attention to our bodily sensations and thoughts, asking ourselves how we feel, bringing our attention into the present moment – into awareness.


Take a deep breathe and Consider your response! In time and with practice of boundary setting, the communication style we are aiming for is Assertive and confident.

Never Doubt

Victims of emotional abuse have a tenancy not to trust their own judgement, partially victims of gaslighting who have become used to doubting themselves and questioning their reality. It becomes difficult to know what is truth and what isn’t leading to a lack of self-belief.

Never Doubt serves as a reminder that we can indeed trust our thoughts and feelings because we have taken the time to consider them in the present. Whatever you are feeling right now, in the moment is the feeling you are able to trust.

Over time with practice, S.T.A.N.D becomes the default response. This calm and controlled way of responding to situations improves confidence while the communication style becomes more assertive.


Paul Newham, Human Sciences teaching EMDR Therapy and PTSD Visited July, 2021.

Deborah J Crozier – S.T.A.N.D ©2014 https://apositivestart.org.uk/s-t-a-n-d-trauma-informed-response/ July 2021

The Cerebral Cortex and Bottom-Up Processing  July, 2021