Remember that a trauma response is a reflex, not a choice.
It’s as reflexive as pulling your hand away when you touch a hot stove.
There’s no “choice” involved there— your nervous system calls the shot.
When you touch a hot stove, pain and fear temporarily override any “choice” about what to do. They literally jerk your hand away for you.
The same thing happens when a trauma trigger is activated.
We don’t “choose” to fight, flee, fawn, or flop, any more than we “chose” to leave our hand on the hot stove.
There’s no shame in experiencing a trauma response, any more than there is shame in jerking your hand away from a hot stove.
Trauma responses can be confusing and frustrating.
We don’t LIKE the idea that something can hijack or nervous system as immediately and thoroughly as trauma responses do.
On some level, we may WANT to believe that our trauma responses ARE “choices”— because if we “chose” them, that means we can “choose” something different, right?
As usual with trauma, it’s not that simple.
When our nervous system has been impacted by a traumatic event, we often don’t get a “choice” in how a trigger affects us.
It’s not exactly like touching a hot stove— it’s more like our nervous system detecting that a hot stove MIGHT be nearby.
It thinks it sees, or feels, or smells something that it saw, felt, or smelled the LAST time you burned your hand on a stove— so it pulls your hand away preemptively…even if there IS no stove.
Trying to convince your nervous system that there’s no stove is virtually impossible.
Our nervous system was not designed to “listen to reason.” It evolved to err on the side of caution and keep us alive.
So what can we do? Do we just have to let trauma responses take their course and run— maybe even ruin— our lives.
We may not have much choice when it comes to what triggers us or how we initially respond— but we CAN get good at wrangling our secondary reactions to trauma triggers and responses.
Our nervous system will ALWAYS jerk our hand back from a hot stove— but we can get really good at deciding what needs to happen AFTER that involuntary jerk has taken place.
Do we get so upset that we almost burned ourselves, or did burn ourselves, that we spiral into self-blame and despair?
Or do we recognize what just happened, and check in with ourselves with realistic self-compassion?
After all, it’s a scary thing to think or feel you came close to touching a hot stove.
The “kid” inside your head and heart might be freaked out. They probably need a check in.
Do we manage our breathing and our focus?
Do we choose to do something distracting that can return us to a little calmer baseline?
Do we maybe seek support— tell someone “Oh man, I almost touched a hot stove, or at least I felt I was about to, and it FREAKED me OUT!”
We don’t have to let our nervous system reflexes be the end of the story.
Over time, in recovery, we can modify our gut reactions. The hot stove won’t always loom so large in our thoughts.
But that’s a process that takes time— and until it works, our best bet is to focus on the response to the reaction.
Think realistic self compassion.
Think on the ground self care.
After all, the reason you HAVE trauma responses is because you WERE burned once upon a time.
We can acknowledge that was real.