3 Dec · Karen Melton · One Comment

What are Activations and How Are They Triggered?

An activation is when a person, or situation, in the present triggers you into a memory from your past. This activation is happening at the instinctual reptilian brain level, and it is out of your conscious awareness. A smell, taste, touch, felt-sense, emotion, behavior by another, similar energy/situation, etc triggers a reaction in your emotional brain, which turns on the physiology of the past event in your body-system. Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, says “When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present…”  He goes on to say that the left brain is deactivated at this time, “which has a direct impact on our capacity to organize experience into logical sequences and translate our shifting feelings and perceptions into words.” This means that whilst you are re-experiencing a trauma from your past your whole system feels as if it is happening in present time, and your logical brain is not available to help you to make sense of this, or to know that you are in an activation. Your brain doesn’t tell you “you are remembering the past”, you are simply engulfed in the experience.

You may be having intense feelings such as anger, rage, shame and terror  from your past. These memories are at a felt-sense, emotional, energetic, instinctual level. When you emerge from the activation you may make up a story about what just happened, or blame someone close to you for their behavior as the cause of your feelings. This is an attempt to make sense of something that you can’t understand without more information. It is possible to become aware of what triggers you into an activated state, to understand it, and to build new internal resources so that you have more choice, and don’t have to act out of old imprints. I call this having true-choice.

The past event, or environment, is activated by something in the present that feels familiar from back then, amplifying and waking up your imprint. We all have imprints. You feel as you did ‘back then’ when the original trauma occurred, both emotionally and physiologically, ‘as if’ it is still happening right now. It has the felt-sense of a present time situation, whilst being about something from the past. This can be confusing if, for example, you feel threatened but you look around and see that you are safe – it doesn’t make cognitive sense, and that could be a clue that you are triggered into an imprint.

We are all triggered in a variety of ways every day. I support people to identify triggers, heal trauma, and to build new resources so that they can be more in charge of themselves, and have more choice in life. Most of us are unable to be discerning, feel resourced and calm, and make true choices when we are triggered into an imprint from the past. It can take a little work to build those skills, and they can completely change your life.

Some activations are continual, such as feeling unsafe, anxious, terrified, or threatened. This activation is ever present, more like a permanent underlying state of alertness and vigilance. It may be such a familiar state for you that it seems normal, and can feel like “this is just how I am”. These triggers are usually about an overwhelming, or life threatening, experience that has remained unintegrated in your body-system. Often there are mistaken beliefs attached to imprints. I lived in a state of hyper-vigilance (on constant alert for danger – fight/flight) for many years due to a life threatening womb experience in the first trimester. This went on 24/7, and even when I became really aware of it, and understood why it was happening, it didn’t change the feelings or the imprint. Healing my early imprints through somatic prenatal and birth healing modalities was what changed it for good. It is necessary to work with the body-system to heal these early wounds. I would flare up into full body terror in certain situations, like being in a group, or someone getting too close to me, and the imprint would become much more obvious, and full-blown. It profoundly permeated everything in my life. Before I healed my womb trauma, being in groups, especially a therapy or personal growth group in which I was expected to be vulnerable, triggered my prenatal survival imprinting. Group’s were terrifying because my survival imprint after my mother’s abortion attempt (my Little One within) said, “be quiet and stay still so no one knows I am here, and then they (my parents) won’t kill me”. In other words my survival response was to become very still and quiet, and not be seen, which later translated into: being seen = life threat.

We all have imprints at least as far back as conception, and there are certain situations in which they will become more alive in us, and color our perception of what is happening in the present. We shift into the reality of an early memory because something has triggered us in the present. E.g. an adult partner rejects us and suddenly we are triggered into a trauma that happened to us at age 6. Emotionally we are immersed in the feelings of a past rejection, when our father left our mother for another woman.

For some people their trigger could originate from having sensed, as a prenate, that their mother is challenged and without adequate support and resources in her life. To the prenate growing inside of her this can translate into feeling that they might not make it in this womb/mother, so they respond by becoming a prenatal caretaker. In Somatic Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology (SPPP) we refer to this as ‘prenatal therapist syndrome’ because you are trained in the womb to care for others, first by caring for your mother. This experience can lead to compulsive care-taking of others, with an underlying feeling that they may die, or may not make it, if they stop care-taking. This may sound dramatic, but at this very primal level of existence, we are very vulnerable. Our survival is tenuous, and dependent entirely upon our mother. As prenate’s we can feel that a compromised mother is a threat to our life because if she is not doing well, neither are we.

Mary was in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as a baby, right after she was born, where she learned to dissociate (leave her body) as a way to cope with the unbearable separation from her mother, and the overwhelming medical attention. Dissociation became a lifelong way of coping for Mary, and this imprint would become intensified throughout her life when she had to cope with separation from people she cared about. Separation would trigger full blown dissociative behavior, as would medical attention and interventions. It is hard to be present in your life, and your body, when you are living with this kind of imprint, but it is eminently possible to heal and change this kind of imprint. When Mary was in the NICU dissociation was a good strategy that helped her to get through an unbearable and overwhelming situation. As an adult, it is a coping strategy that is no longer working in a positive way in her life, because she wants to be present and feel embodied, and show up in her relationships with people she loves and cares about.

One way that you can spot an activation is when you are having an emotional response to someone, or to a situation, that is out of proportion. Any feelings that seem over blown may have an imprint that has been triggered lurking underneath. If the situation is stimulating at a 1-2 level (out of 10, 10 being highly stimulated to the maximum level), and you are reacting as if it is an 8 level situation, you could be triggered into an old memory, or a trauma. Healing that trauma can reduce the charge, giving you true-choice in your life. Triggers have a lot of information within them, so we can learn a lot about ourselves when we listen to our body-system.

Some Signs That You Are Triggered Into An Old Imprint:

Skin coloration changes (red/white/yellow)
Blink rate increases
Nervous system starts revving, or feels dysregulated (not calm)
Sweating
Losing contact with your normal resources
Can’t hear, or take in, what’s being said
Head feels fuzzy or brain scrambled
Feeling fear, terror and other feelings inappropriate to your situation
Sequencing issues, e.g. can’t finish or start things
Dissociation
Restricted breathing
Feeling a contraction somewhere in your body
Having unexplainable physical sensations
Panic attacks
Anxiety
Fear/Terror
Numbness
Hyper-vigilance

When you come out of an activated state you might look back and wonder, “What was that all about?” It was probably a very familiar feeling state that you went in to but often doesn’t make sense to your rational mind. There is rarely anything rational about old somatic memories and imprints, but when you truly get to know what your imprints are really about, everything makes a deep kind of sense, and you can experience a feeling of coherency in your system that feels really good.

© 2016 Karen Melton

Category: Articles, Other

Karen Melton

ONE COMMENT

  • Batja Cates says:

    Karen, wonderful article. Love you literary clarity. I’m interested in your work with adults outside of ongoing parental and prenatal issues.

    Your website is elegant and clean. The content is very well represented and presented, easy to read.
    And your respectful approach is clear in how you present this article, enhanced by your self-disclosure.
    Kudos on this, my dear!
    Batja Cates,

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