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Navigating Trauma Triggers

By Jodi Cohen

Yesterday I got the dreaded call.

My daughter was hurt.

She injured her ankle playing rugby and had to be carried off the field.

Pain level was a 9 and she couldn’t put any weight on it.

My heart sank – her dorm room is three flights up and her school is known for its hills. Worse yet, she is living on the other side of the country and I felt completely helpless to support her.

My baby was hurt and there was nothing I could do to make it better.

Then the real anxiety kicked in.

My mind started racing, heart exploding, the desire to crawl out of my skin overtook me.

I recognized that I was having a full-blown anxiety attack and I knew why – the phone call informing me that my child was injured coupled with the feeling of being powerless to do anything to help or change the situation triggered all the memories of Max’s accident and that fateful phone call alerting me to the problem.

My brain knew that my daughter was not going to die, just struggle to hobble around campus, but my body had its own reaction that I struggled to override.


Trauma Triggers

My daughter’s phone call was a trauma trigger – the similarity of the phone call and my feeling of utter helplessness reminded me of my past trauma when I learned that Max had died.

I knew from reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score” that trauma can be “stored” in the body, what I did not realize until I experienced it firsthand was how a situation that felt similar to that trauma, known as a “trauma trigger”  could throw me for such a loop – prompting thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to the original trauma that felt like a complete overreaction to the current situation.

According to Psyche Central “A trigger might make you feel helpless, panicked, unsafe, and overwhelmed with emotion. You might feel the same things that you felt at the time of the trauma, as though you were reliving the even….   In addition, the trauma survivor may experience extreme emotions like panic or dissociation when triggered.”

For me, this was an understatement.  The sense of panic and dissociation were so intense, I literally wanted to crawl out of my skin.  I felt like I was reliving that trauma all over again.

I knew what was going on and I still could barely stay in my body.

I was aware that “When you encounter a trigger, memories and thoughts associated with the trauma come back without warning. Your mind perceives triggers as a threat and causes a reaction like fear, panic, or agitation. Think of the reaction to triggers as a defense mechanism: The memory of the traumatic event places you right back into the experience, which causes your walls to go up against the perceived threat in an attempt to protect yourself.”

I could feel my sympathetic nervous system kick into overdrive and was surprised that my normal strategies for calming my nervous system – including my Parasympathetic® essential oil blend and tapping – did not immediately resolve the problem.

This is because trauma reduces your window of tolerance — the emotional zone in which you feel grounded, balanced, and calm. A smaller window of tolerance means stressors are more likely to cause greater emotional upset and it can take some time for your nervous system to recover and return to baseline.

In fact, neuroimaging studies where the brains of those who have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are compared with brains who have not been exposed to PTSD, show that the amygdala is overactive and prefrontal cortex is under active, contributing to stress and overwhelm.

The more you can spot your trauma triggers, the easier it is to recognize and recover from the reactions they trigger.


Trauma Triggers and Core Wounds

When you over-react to a situation, it is usually because one of your core wounds from childhood have been triggered which compromises your ability to regulate your emotions.  Core wound forms when pain and emotions from a traumatic experience or some form of emotional neglect have been suppressed and internalized.

Core wounds may define who you believe yourself to be and influence your thoughts, beliefs, and stories which in turn might cause you to create and attract painful experiences that feed the wound.

When it is triggered, you tend to operate from a place of wounding, rather than love which can present as reactivity, emotional manipulation, controlling behavior, or generally unstable emotional reactions.

Every intimate relationship triggers the reliving of parent/child experiences and can activate buried wounds that can set you off and send you spiraling down into a whirlwind of emotion.


Calm Emotional Over Reactivity

When you are able to process to past disturbing memories and related events and how they contribute to current situations that cause distress, you are better able to develop the skills and attitudes needed for positive future actions.

If a seemingly benign situation – like my daughter spraining her ankle – provokes you in a way that makes suddenly feel so mad, sad, scared or frustrated and can’t figure out why, it is often an indication that you have triggered a core wound.

Here’s what is likely going on:  When that something happens in your present-day life that reminds you of the trauma, it then triggers the same emotions you had during the traumatic event.

The current situation might merit a frustration level of 3, but since it reminds you of your core wound or trauma where you felt frustration at a level 9 out of 10. So suddenly, in the present day, you are way more frustrated than you need to be. The core wound triggered you and now you are overreacting emotionally.


Essential Oils to Sooth Triggers

Our sense of smell travels directly to the emotional center of the brain to calm anxiety and support problem solving and focus and mental bandwidth to manage overwhelm.  And essential oils offer the easiest channel into the body. Your sense of smell, which is part of our olfactory system, is one of the most powerful channels into the body.   In fact, olfactory cells are brain cells, and the olfactory membrane in the nasal cavity is the only place in your body where the brain is directly exposed to the environment.

Research shows that inhalation can be the most direct and effective method for using essential oils. The entire process from the initial inhalation of an essential oil to a corresponding response in the body can happen in a matter of seconds.  Which means, the fastest way to calm overwhelm is to inhale essential oils

Inhaled or topically applied essential oils can help increase blood flow to specific regions of your brain, like your pre-frontal cortex which helps enhance your focus and brain power and calm any emotionally flooding or anxiety – which allows you to soothe and regulate your nervous system so you can calm down and unpack your triggers and core wounds.

I used the Parasympathetic® blend, but you can use any of your favorite single oils or blends for the following:


Inhale Parasympathetic® or Focus™ blends deeply and focus on the smell and the present moment.  Focusing on your five senses – smell, taste, touch, sight and sound can help ground you in the present moment and shift you out of past trauma or future worries.

Grounding, or mentally and physically connecting to the healing energy of nature and the Earth, can help supports your clarity and perspective to release trauma triggers.

Topical Application

Topically apply the Parasympathetic® blend behind the vagus nerve on the mastoid bone to help ground your energy, activate your parasympathetic nervous system and help calm the emotional reactivity that trauma triggers bring on. It helps calm the feelings of fight, flight or freeze that you feel physically, as well.

Topical application can be a powerful tool.  Your skin is relatively permeable to fat-soluble substances like essential oils, making topical, or transdermal, application extremely effective. Topical application also bypasses the stomach and liver, which can chemically alter the therapeutic effects of drugs and essential oils.

It is important to note that different application points yield different results. You can significantly amplify your results by intentionally applying essential oils on specific healing points known as acupuncture points or reflexology points that are correlated with specific organ systems or regions of the brain, like the vagus nerve.

For example, acupuncture points behind the ear and around the neck are the most effective points for stimulating the vagus nerve. A neural anatomy study showed the vagus nerve is most accessible for stimulation via the lower half of the back ear.  Research on “acupuncture and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) found that acupuncture points produce clinical benefits through stimulation of the vagus nerve and/or its branches in the head and neck region that are anatomically proximate to vagus nerve pathways there, where the VNS electrode is surgically implanted.”

Topically applying stimulatory essential oils, like Parasympathetic®, behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone can stimulate the vagus nerve where it is most accessible to the surface of the skin. During a traumatic trigger, you can apply Parasympathetic® to vagus nerve as often as you find helpful.


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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.