Updated: Oct 21, 2021
When the waves of panic hit and we feel out of control barely able to stand, time and time again, wondering if it will ever stop, those who have suffered from Betrayal Trauma wonder the same thing. It feels like crashing waves that will overwhelm you and wash you away, with no hope of real recovery or normalcy.
If you get nothing else from this post, I want you to know that you’re not alone. And it is a very normal question when you’ve been betrayed by your intimate partner.
Anxiety is not the same as stress.
Everyone has stressful situations in their life and everyone can be anxious as a result of particular triggers. So what do I mean by that?
Stress is usually something that is not long lasting or is from an isolated event. Anxiety is more long term, like rough seas in the midst of a hurricane, and can stem from a stressful situation that is never resolved.
So let’s talk about what happens in your brain when you become triggered and anxious by a stressful situation.
The amygdala, let’s call her, Maggie, is a tiny, almond shaped part of the brain that deals with emotions and moods. She is responsible for alerting you to danger and her job is to keep you safe. She is always seeking safety, which in an anxious state that has been flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, means she is always on high alert. That means that safety seems to be at arms length and never attainable. Because of this, our central nervous system continues in this flooded state.
Maggie is the one who responds with the fight, flight or freeze response. When you become fearful or anxious about something, this is a natural response.
When difficulty comes your way, do you fight it tooth and nail? Do you argue to make your point or to feel heard? If so, then your natural response is most likely to fight.
When troubles come, do you want to leave? Get away? Disappear until it passes? Go take a nap? Then most likely your natural response is to fly away, to leave so as to not have to deal with it.
When pain comes your way, do you just stand still? Do you clam up and not ‘move’ because you feel paralyzed to do anything? Your natural response is probably to freeze up and stay stuck, unmoving.
There’s also a response called fawn. Sometimes when we’re faced with a difficult situation our natural response is to become a people pleaser in order to get out of the situation or to make it all better. You’re trying to soften the situation until it all blows over.
Continuing in an anxious state can cause you to feel agitated on a more regular basis, such as with panic attacks, meaning you are being consistently flooded with the two hormones. The more that happens, the larger your amygdala grows. That means that Maggie is constantly alerting your brain to danger, even when it’s really non-existent. Constantly being on the alert actually damages the connection to the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for executive functioning.
After Maggie gets involved and she’s flooded, she spills over into our anterior cingulate, the emotional center, which manages our limbic system. The number one thing that gets triggered is rejection. That’s when our prefrontal cortex can go ‘offline’. When this happens, our ability to reason and think clearly go out the window. For betrayed women we see that our rational thought and ability to form words is very often affected.
When you have experienced trauma, we wouldn’t expect anything less.
-Carol Juergensen Sheets
Continual trauma, betrayal, and anxiety will cause your hippocampus to shrink. This is the part of your brain that holds onto memories. When continually flooded with trauma, it will tend to hold onto the memories related to anxiety. It actually trains your brain to hold onto the memories that brought danger and fear. Sadly, your brain cannot differentiate between time frames, meaning when you are triggered, you will remember being in that space of trauma and respond to that instead of realizing that you now could be in a safe place.
Now that you have a better idea of what happens, let’s look at a couple of examples.
You’ve learned about your husbands addiction, and while you were filled with fear and anxiety initially, he is now in good recovery, actively working on empathy, owning his behavior and repairing the damage his actions have caused.
You know that one of the places that he viewed porn was in the bathroom, behind closed doors, on his smartphone. You discover he has taken his phone to the bathroom for the first time in over a year since he began his recovery.
Your husband gets called away on a business trip. He hasn’t been out of town alone since your disclosure, which is where you learned that he rents XXX movies.
He has a job change which gives him a lot of unaccounted for time. In the past, when he’s been alone, he’s not made good choices. He frequently drives through the part of town filled with strip clubs, where he confessed to going in the midst of his addiction.
Clearly these would be very normal triggers, even for a partner who is working her own recovery. Maggie remembers that this means she’s not safe and immediately floods. You could feel rejected because he doesn’t seem to care about you or your marriage and maybe his recovery isn’t real. Now you can’t think clearly or even form a decent sentence to explain what you need or rationalize your thoughts or feelings.
All of this happens subconsciously.
How can you manage all of these emotions and memories? What do you do when the waves just keep crashing in?
The first thing you need to do is to remember that Maggie was triggered into her fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. You may have good reason to feel the way you feel and you may not. Your feelings, which are very valid, aren’t good decision makers. So you need to calm her down…we’ll talk more about that next time, but there are many ways to accomplish that. Intentional breathing is what I use most often.
Second, you need to phone a friend. What I mean by that is that I hope you are involved in a group of women who understand where you are at, where you have been, who have walked with you and who are still there for you. We can’t do this alone. We need community around us in order to heal. So call on your community.
Third, if you have a helping professional such as a coach or counselor, you might want to call on them if you are really struggling. As always, make sure you have employed someone who is trained in trauma and realizes that betrayal triggers a trauma response. Together you can put together a plan of action.
Lastly, journal. And journal some more. Very often this is where I write out my prayers to God for Him to show me what He wants me to see and learn. He is the One who reveals truth, so ask Him. Be sure to journal your thoughts and feelings so that you can fully express them and feel heard. You matter. Journaling is very validating and very cleansing. It’s encouraging to look back on where you were and see how far you have come and all that God has done in your story.
Next time we will look at the various ways that you can calm your amygdala when you feel triggered.
How does knowing about your brain function help you process your responses?
When you are triggered, what is your process for moving forward?