The Big Happiness Interview: How to stop getting triggered by past trauma

Last week, I found myself quietly weeping into my lunch at a local café.

As big fat tears plopped into my bowl of pea soup, I realised a perceived slight from a Facebook friend had triggered memories of an old bullying drama from the childhood playground. I was amazed that such a tiny dismissal on social media could stir up such strong emotion from my past, which made me wobble, procrastinate with a business idea I’d had, and hibernate instead.

That’s why I’m delighted to be talking to Dr. Gabor Maté, renowned medical doctor (now retired) and author of The Myth Of Normal: Trauma, Illness, And Healing In A Toxic Culture, which explores the effects of past trauma on the individual’s mental and physical health.

‘You know when you are in the grips of the past when your reaction is out of proportion to what is stressing you out,’ he tells ;So if somebody looks at you the wrong way or doesn’t invite you to a party and you feel devastated and life’s not worth living, then you know that this is an old wound that was unbearable when you first sustained it.’

Highly sought after for his expertise on addiction, stress, and childhood development, Gabor is also the best-selling, award-winning author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, When The Body Says No: Understand The Stress-Disease Connection and Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates And What You Can Do About It.

Over four decades of clinical experience working with patients challenged by drug addiction and mental illness, Maté has come to recognize the impact of trauma and stress, and the pressures of modern-day living exert on our bodies and our minds at the expense of good health. 

Here talks to Gabor about how we can heal our past so we can create a happier future:

What is trauma?

Trauma is a wound from the past that stops you growing in the future.

But trauma is not what happens to you in the past, it’s how you are reacting in the present to what happened to you in the past.

The good news is you can do something about that reaction.

So how do we start to heal our reactions to trauma in the past?

We start the journey by recognising the impacts of trauma in our lives and where this is showing up in the present. If people are experiencing depression, or anxiety, or trouble concentrating or if they have significant physical symptoms, or chronic physical ailments, or if they’re facing addictions, whether to substances or to work, or to pornography, or to gambling, or to eating, or shopping…? These are all manifestations of trauma.

So, instead of blaming themselves for the symptoms, or behaviours, people need to ask: what pain am I trying to cover? Or what pain is driving me to behave in those ways?

Trauma is a wound from the past that stops you growing in the future.

Often people don’t want to ask for help because they are ashamed of their behaviours or their reactions. How do we handle the shame?

Recognise that shame itself is a sign of trauma. Because when bad things happen to a kid, or the requisite good things don’t happen, the child makes the automatic assumption that they are at fault, defective and there’s something wrong with them.

So shame needs to be recognised as a mark of trauma. But it doesn’t speak to reality, it speaks to a person’s experience of being alone with their pain, and being made to feel responsible.

Shame can feel like a huge barrier to seeking help. But while we remain helpless, it keeps us stuck in the pain and the past. From the point of view of people reading this, they need to know that they’re not alone with that shame. There’s about 10 zillion people out there, doing exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons.

You talk about curiosity and compassionate inquiry to help us create new ways of behaving – what are some good questions to ask?

If you’re indulging in behaviours that feel destructive, ask yourself – what is that behaviour giving you in the short term? Instead of asking – what is wrong with it, ask what’s right about it? What is it giving you in the short term?

Let’s say you’re drinking too much. This might give you peace of mind or a sense of escape, or make you feel less stressed?

Then ask the next question. How did I lose my peace of mind? What’s happening to me that I feel so stressed? What is the emotional pain I’m trying to soothe?

Start asking questions with curiosity. Not with a spirit of self-judgement of self-condemnation.

You are an expert on childhood trauma. What practices can parents introduce that will help to reduce the chances of trauma in their children?

There are three practices. Firstly, parents must look at their own patterns. We always bond with a partner who has the same level of trauma that we have. If we haven’t moved on from our traumas, we’re going to pass them on to our kids so deal with your own stuff as best you can.

I was given away as a baby and I had to look at my sense of abandonment and how that showed up in relationship to my wife and the impact that had on my kids. The more conscious we become, the less likely it is that we’re going to transmit it to the next generation.

The second thing is to understand that those first three years are so important in shaping a person’s self-concept and template for relationships. If I had my time again, I would put everything else in my life secondary to being as present for my kids as possible in those first three years. Ask yourself – what could you put aside for those first three years for the sake of being more present with your kids?

The third point to know is to understand the child needs to be unconditionally accepted. The child shouldn’t have to work to be loved. Focus on that versus working out how you get them to behave well or how to get them into a good school.

You talk about the ‘tyranny of the past’ that can trigger us. How do we stop getting triggered?

First of all, don’t be hard on yourself, don’t criticise yourself, don’t say, ‘oh my god, I screwed it up again’.

Once you’ve calmed down, remember that the trigger is a very small part of the mechanism. For the trigger to set something off, there has to be ammunition and an explosive charge. If I trigger you, who’s carrying the explosive charge and ammunition?

The more you get to know yourself, the less likely you are to get triggered. I recommend using those incidents where you are triggered to learn about yourself and discover why this little trigger sets out this huge explosion.

For example, is it because you’re still carrying this belief that you’re not loveable? Or when somebody is late to meet you for coffee, and you get really upset, is it because there’s belief that you’re not valuable? You’re the one with that belief. The other person is just late for coffee.

I still get triggered about things in my past but I’m much quicker to recognise it and clean it up afterwards.

We always bond with a partner who has the same level of trauma that we have.

In your book, you write about the toxic culture that we live in, how does that impact us?

Our current society places stress on families, tears communities apart, and isolates individuals. This leaves us with parenting situations where children’s attachment needs are not met. They’re left empty and hungry for affection and love and seeking that love from outside sources.

My new book is about our individual health not being an isolated biological phenomenon. It reflects our relationships from conception onward, our community, and the entire culture.

We have a capitalist economy based on meeting our false needs because our real needs were not met as children. Whole industries are based on selling us products and activities that have no other purpose than to temporarily satiate that need for feeling whole. Our current capitalist system is based on the idea that the more you get, the happier you’ll be. It’s based on exciting a person, but not on meeting that hunger, which is how it becomes addictive.

For that reason, when we try to understand the illness or trauma as an individual event, we miss out on the possibility of healing.

What can we do to change that?

It depends on how motivated a person is, and what arena of activities are available to them. Everybody’s got some kind of a platform and they can use it to advocate for certain changes.

What changes? Let’s at least educate the doctors about trauma, given that everything they do has to do with trauma. Let’s educate them about how to deal and heal addiction and mental health problems. Let’s look at the individuals who end up in front of the criminal justice system who are traumatised individuals. Let’s talk to teachers, who deal with all these traumatised kid and train them to understand what behaviours such as bullying or being bullied stem from. Let’s start there.

The four As of healing

‘No one can plot someone else’s route to healing,’ says Gabor. ‘The following four A’s are not how-to steps but healing principles that help.’


Is there an inner guidance I am defying, resisting, ignoring, or avoiding?
Instead of stuffing down a thought or feeling. Ask – Is that what I want to do? Is there another option?


Life is much bigger than us, and we do not forward our own healing by pretending to be in control where we’re not.

However, agency does mean having some choice around who and how we ‘be’ in life, what parts of ourselves we identify with and act from.

Those who find ways to take control of their own healing are more likely to do better in the long term.


Anger is a natural form of boundary defence, a dynamic activation when we perceive a threat to our lives or physical or emotional integrity. (It’s not however, blind rage, bluster, resentment, spite, venom or bile.) Fully functioning anger is a standard feature of our wholeness, essential for our survival: think of an animal protecting its turf or its young.

The movement toward wholeness often involves the reintegration of this oft-banished emotion into a repertoire of available feelings.


Acceptance begins with allowing things to be as they are. Instead of resisting the truth or denying or fantasising, endeavour to just be with what is. In doing so, we foster a relationship aligned with the actual present.

The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture by Dr Gabor Maté with Daniel Maté (Vermilion, £25.00)

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