What are trauma filters, why do we have them, and how can we prevent them negatively impacting our behaviours?
Trauma filters are filters (or screens or glasses) with which we look at the world when we are in an emotional flashback. Filters change the way we see people or things. We have them because our brain got wired this way once upon a time when we did not have the control to change a situation that caused us great distress. Trauma filters can cause us to behave in ways that seem like over-reactions to others, which definitely does not make a bad situation better. We often end up doing or saying things can be hurtful to others, damaging relationships as well as our own opportunities.
The goal is to be aware of our trauma filters, pause long enough to interrupt the spiral, and find a way to shift to another set of (more helpful) filters, allowing us to make better decisions.
Understanding Trapped Trauma
Traumas are highly distressing events that threaten our life, safety or well-being. They can be terrible events like assault, accidents, combat, or the loss of a loved one. They can also be ongoing, like abuse (physical or emotional), poverty or homelessness (for some as children). A sense of helplessness or lack of control can trap the trauma in our nervous system. Not having appropriate support to recover from a traumatic event or situation can be more damaging than the trauma itself.
During these situations, our brains had worked extra hard to get us out of danger or pain. But if it was legitimately too much for us to problem-solve our way out of, a natural conclusion at the time could be the belief that we are helpless, weak, lazy, wrong, or somehow inherently not good enough or worthy enough to deserve better. Or the flip side, which can be more like, no one cares, people are not trustworthy, and the world is a very dangerous place.
This intense feeling is experienced both cognitively as well as physically in the body and becomes an open gaping wound. Unprocessed, this trapped energy, if not released, becomes triggered as an emotional flashback when we somehow get reminded of it in a present moment.
We end up time travelling back to that time in our memory. Our body can’t tell the difference between what is happening and a memory of it, so it experiences the stress of the situation again. Somehow we are reminded of our unworthiness or other people’s evil tendencies without the reality of the current context, which can be very confusing.
This then triggers our helpful logical side, which sternly tells us that we are being silly and to shape up. So then starts the internal fighting of the different voices, parts, or whatever you want to call the different perspectives. This internal fighting, which happens in a split second, can feel like a mental pinball machine where the little metal ball gets bounced back and forth all over the place with such force and speed, it hard to keep track of it and know what to do. This takes up very little time, but a LOT of headspace and energy!
This trapped trauma can pop up when something happens that reminds us of that traumatic moment and we re-live it, sending our body into a state of great stress. The brain sends out stress hormones, thinking we are in that dangerous situation again, which takes our executive functions offline, because we are getting ready for fight, flight, or freeze.
We then have trauma filters through which we see the world, the behaviours of other people, and even our own past. We may think that everything is going wrong because that’s what our filter skews us to see. We may believe that there are no options because our executive functions are offline and it’s hard to be creative if we aren’t calm. We may mistrust someone because we don’t understand their motive, and we may be incredibly harsh on ourselves for decisions we made in the past.
If we don’t pause, but rather go ahead with a knee-jerk reaction to the incredible distress we are feeling, we may make poor decisions like attack other people or berate ourselves until our anxiety or depression make us unable to function at all.
By leaving our trauma filters on… we will eventually isolate ourselves from others or experience burn out.
So… What Can We Do?
Like many challenges in life, the approach may need to be multilayered and can be unique to each person, even each moment, depending on your priorities (goals and values) and options (circumstances and resources of time, energy, headspace, money).
I’d like you to consider a short term tool and then some longer term approaches.
Quick Short-Term In the Moment Tool
In the moment, it’s pretty hard to pause and remove the filter. Our brains are wired that way as a default. Just as it’s difficult to slam on the breaks when the car is 100 mph, trying to stop a trigger in its raging tracks isn’t easy. But it’s doable with awareness, training, and practice. One tool that has been particularly helpful for me is AGAIN: Awareness, Grounding, Analysis, Identifying needs, and Navigating the next time. Here’s a short article about the tool:
Longer-term Bigger Picture Approach
While dealing with triggers due to trauma can be incredibly difficult and overwhelming, it is possible to rewire our brains due to what is called neuroplasticity or the flexibility and resilience of our brain and neuropathways. It takes commitment, time, and the understanding that healing is not linear.
Not everything works for everyone in the same way. Different people are at different stages of their journey and needs can be different.
- Therapy/Trauma Recovery Coaching: There is a huge range of healthcare providers and professionals who can support your healing through various modalities. It may take some time, but it is greatly worth the effort to find someone you trust, where you can create a safe space to Do Your Work. It’s a place where all your feelings are welcome, there is no shame, no blame, no guilt. It may need to be someone who doesn’t trigger you, as unintentional as it may be. It’s a relationship where you can practice finding your voice and identifying your choice. It can be incredibly uncomfortable to do work at such a deep level, but it is well worth the effort.
- Medication: While I’m not a fan of medication when it’s not warranted, I will say that some people may need medication to help alleviate the pain for a bit and provide some headspace. You just have to be aware of side effects or even that it may take your body a while to figure out the right medication and dosage. It’s super important to work with your doctor who can monitor with you and make adjustments if necessary. I don’t personally believe that medication is a long term solution, but I think that it can be a part of a more holistic approach.
- Mindfulness and Grounding: Mindfulness and grounding are about ending our time travel (ruminating about the past and catastrophizing about the future), just experiencing the present moment as it is. It’s about accepting the reality of the moment and not exerting energy wishing it away. It’s about helping the body remember that it is physically and emotionally safe in the present moment so it doesn’t have to send stress hormones all over the place. It’s preventing us from going into a flight/flight/freeze response. It is so important to figure out, through trial and error, what works for you. Something that works for someone else can be triggering for you.
- Find Your Village: Humans need humans. Humans need relationships. We need healthy relationships with like-minded people. We need to be loved and cared for and we need to love and care for others. If this doesn’t come easy, it’s quite possible that trauma got in the way. Finding your village at any age will help you learn more about healthy boundaries and the importance of being imperfect. All huge topics and all things that support your growth and development.
- Self Compassion and Self Care: While the word ‘self’ is prominent here, we have to learn that self compassion and self care is NOT about being selfish. It’s about taking care of our needs in order to function. It’s about being kind to ourselves so that we can be kind to others. When we are overwhelmed and depleted, it is impossible to maintain compassion or kindness to others. So self compassion and self care is just extending empathy and kindness to ourselves as we would want to give to others.
- Self Expression (Creativity): The only time we truly feel flow or the enjoyable flow of time without pressure is when we are lost in creativity. We don’t even sense time passing, because we are so engrossed in the doing of something that has meaning for us or brings us incredible joy. Creativity is what allows us to try and fail and then learn and succeed. Creativity helps us learn from mistakes or happenstance. Energy invested in creativity and curiosity means less energy in hypervigilance and fear. It’s hard to be furious when we are curious. And everyone can be creative. It just means that you are having something come out of you that has never existed before: a moment of song, a drawing, a dance, an article, a debate, It’s never existed before because that moment, with you, with that particular set of things, just hasn’t existed before. It’s an original moment. You created it. You are expressing yourself.
I meant for this article to be super short, like maybe a 5-minute read, so if you’re still reading this, you are a trooper!
If this article about Trauma Filters was helpful, drop me a line. If you disagree with something, let me know, I’m open to learning and can always edit an online article! if you want to do the work and want some ideas about where to start, book an Informational Chat and let’s figure it out!