My Story: When Past Trauma Is Triggered
Written by a former ministry recipient of Harvest USA
Have you ever been blindsided by pain from the past erupting unexpectedly in present circumstances? It can be disconcerting and even terrifying. I’d like to share my experience of this in the hope that it will help others walking out faith and obedience regarding not only sexual sin, but also the wreckage of painful relationships.
I’m an older woman and thought I’d worked through my issues from the past, including a difficult relationship with my mom. I love the Lord, have sought to be immersed in the truth of God’s Word, and have also benefited greatly from counseling as well as Harvest USA’s discipleship for women. I experienced same-sex attraction (SSA) in my teen years and early adulthood but, by God’s grace, those desires dissipated profoundly. I’m thankful for a kind and godly husband who has journeyed with me. Amid these blessings, a few years ago an incident occurred that brought me to my knees with a sense of desperation to understand what had been triggered that I was seeking to escape.
The Trigger and the Memory
There had been a change in leadership at the job I’d held for many years. During supervision with my new boss, she didn’t want to hear a word I had to say. Things were tense. After the meeting, I found myself wanting to run out of the building. I thought, “Maybe if I go pick up coffee every couple of hours, I’ll be alright; I just need to get out of here!” This familiar sensation is what I’d come to understand as a fight or flight response, common in those who’ve experienced trauma. Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.
After a couple of days feeling out of control, I came before my heavenly Father on my knees in prayer, crying out, “What is wrong with me?” Exhausted, I rested in his presence. I believe the Lord helped me connect a childhood occurrence with its emotion and feelings. These feelings were the same as those I felt in that office with my boss.
Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.
When I was a very young child, I remember standing by my mother’s chair in the living room wanting and asking for her attention, but she would ignore me with a mean and callous look on her face. I felt rejected—as if my personhood was not even worth being recognized. I hadn’t felt those feelings again until I was in that office decades later, with my boss who didn’t want to hear a word I said.
Significantly, my lack of connection with my mother—something I always wanted—was a key component when it comes to my disordered desire for emotional and physical intimacy with older women. I realize now that my mother was greatly troubled and had mental illness. I’ve forgiven her. I thought I’d fully worked through this loss until this triggering event.
What should we do when past trauma is triggered?
What the enemy intends to use for evil, God desires to use for our good (Gen. 50:20). I’ve found the following action steps helpful, and I hope they help you, too. As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.
- It’s important to realize something is wrong. This sounds simple, right? However, sometimes we don’t take time to slow down enough to sort through our feelings. We need to identify what is going on in our hearts to work through our problems and pain. In Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Diane Langberg states:
Pain is the only protest in the human constitution that something is wrong. It is the only thing that raises its voice against existing abuses. If you jump to silence pain, you will fail to find the wound. Pain is the Martin Luther of the human framework; it plasters the wall of the city with the announcement that something is wrong.
- Take time to process what has happened. Like the grieving process, we need time to work through our loss. Many people find journaling helpful. This is an especially important step that must not be overlooked to work through the triggering event and how it relates to past trauma. Some will benefit from talking it out with a trusted friend or counselor to be guided through processing deep pain safely.
- Identify feelings like anxiety, anger, and fear and the “whys” behind each. Also, challenge corresponding thoughts that do not line up with what God says about you, replacing lies with the truth of God’s Word. Knowing who you are in Christ is a firm foundation on which to stand. Emotions can be powerful! When a past trauma has been triggered, it’s helpful to remind yourself that the past event is in the past and that you are safe in the here and now.
- Seek help. Your symptoms (and those strong feelings and emotions) should settle down over time. If you are continuing to struggle—having difficulty with your daily tasks, falling into old negative patterns, experiencing flashbacks or nightmares—help from a counselor may be warranted.
- Remember you’re not alone. Your heavenly Father is with you and will uphold you (Is. 43:1–3). He will never fail you! He longs to comfort you (2 Cor. 1:3). He desires that we pour out our heart to him, and yes, he will meet us in our most challenging times (Heb. 4:16). He is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
- Don’t isolate. A natural reaction to trauma is to withdraw from others. However, it’s extremely important to maintain relationships and connections to your church community. When you’re hurting and feeling delicate, allow God’s people to love you. This doesn’t mean you share your struggle in every large group setting. But choose to lean on trusted friends who are spiritually mature and have modeled a compassionate heart toward sufferers. In the hard things of life, I have never felt so loved as to be surrounded by my brothers and sisters who care for me with the love of Jesus.
- Self-care. Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating right, and getting enough exercise. These things are known to be helpful, increasing our ability to cope with the stressors of life. If you are not feeling very motivated, take small steps in a positive direction and build on those steps as you begin to feel better. And don’t neglect to do things you enjoy!
As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.
Know that God has good plans for you (Jer. 29:11) and desires to use you in the lives of others (Eph. 2:10). Look to Jesus always (Heb. 12:2–3) and run to him when your past pain is triggered—he is our help and our eternal healing.