Did you know that anything can become a trigger for your brain’s fear response? A smell. A stuffed animal. A song. A picture. Even the most innocent things can become the cue for your brain to prepare your body for survival.
When your brain is processing whatever that object or experience is at the same time as a threat, the two get fused together.
As the neuroscientist’s say “neurons that fire together, wire together” (first coined by Carla Shatz). In other words, because the neurons processing that object/experience were firing at the time of threat, they will continue to be connected- until you train your brain to believe otherwise.
And this happens completely outside your awareness. It’s an automatic process meant to protect you from danger.
So maybe you hear that song or see fuzzy monkeybear… and the only thing you’re aware of is intense panic, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing. Your body is trying to prepare you for a danger that probably isn’t present with an innocent old teddy bear or a swing tune.
So what can we do?
1) We can practice awareness exercises– to strengthen the ‘muscles’ that focus attention.
This is the prep work for when the trigger happens. So you intentionally practice (or work out) focusing on a mantra or focusing on your breathing. And then over time, this comes in handy… when you need to focus attention on the present moment.
So in those times where you get the rapid breathing and heart pounding- you can pull out your newly developed skill and focus on the present moment. Focusing on the present smells, sights, sounds, and textures sends the message to your brain that you are no longer in the past where those neurons are fused.
2) We can also override our alarm system (even as it’s in process) by taking deep breaths, focusing on colors around us- being present in the moment.
These types of activities send the message to the brain that we are safe and fine. The threat is gone. It basically tells the brain: “Simmer yourself down now, it’s all good.”
3) Name the object or experience linked to the threat. Try to figure out what innocent object or experience got fused with your trauma. Knowing is the first step.
If you can call out the experience that fused with your trauma, focusing attention becomes easier.
So next time your heart starts beating fast and you’re terrified of that perfume or jazz song… with no immediate threat, try these techniques. See if you can gain control and power back over the experience… Instead of it controlling you.