When Triggered Some of Us Become Different People

I was catching up on some podcast episodes last night, and while listening to an episode of the Happiness Lab, the topic reminded me of what it’s like to have a flashback or have a reaction due to trauma.

The episode itself wasn’t about trauma. It was about how people in an extreme emotional state due to pain, exhaustion, hunger, etc., can act in ways that do not match what they would do outside of that state. Dr. Santos refers to it as being in a warm versus a cold state. In the heat of the moment, we might make decisions that we later regret, and the things we plan to do while we are in a cold state can go straight out the window when we are in a warm state.

She compares it to the Hulk. When mild-mannered, Dr. Banner can switch to being the Hulk when angry or having a strong emotional reaction.

As she and her guests shared their stories and the research around how this happens, I kept replacing all of the stories; the pain of giving birth, the struggle to bike up 4,000 feet of incline, and others with trauma and PTSD flashbacks. When we have those kinds of reactions, we become different people. Often we become the child who was being abused instead of the adult we are, and we act accordingly. We lash out, self-protect in unhealthy ways, or try our best to hide from it.

The exact reactions are not the important thing. We need to know that it happens. When in an extreme emotional state, we have the capacity to act like a different person. We all do. The problem comes from the fact that we don’t know that person. We are not good at predicting how we will react. When we are in a cool state, the warm state version of us makes no sense, and how we think we’ll act turns out not to be the reality of what happens at all.

The advice offered during the podcast on addressing this problem is writing down how you feel and what you’re thinking during a warm episode and reviewing it when you’re in a “cooler” space and forgiving yourself for how you reacted to an intensely emotional situation.

That sounds like the advice often offered to those of us who have had to deal with triggers that we have a trauma response to or even various forms of dissociation. Given that, maybe give the episode a listen, and do what I did, replace the stories with your own trauma responses. It might just help you understand your own version of the Hulk.

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