This past week I finished a novel and watched a movie, each based on an historical occurrence. Both novel and movie featured characters that lived an exceptional experience that had a long term impact on their psyche.
The novel was entitled The Lilac Girls: Set during World War II, it told the story of three women. Two were involved in the medical experiments at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp during the Nazi regime. The third woman, Carolyn Ferriday, was a wealthy philanthropist from Connecticut who worked diligently on saving those she could in Europe from abroad.
At the end of the war, Carolyn took on the mission of bringing Polish women who suffered the atrocities of experimental medical procedures in Ravensbruck to America to have reconstructive surgery. Part of Carolyn’s attempt to heal these women was to arrange a visit to Disney World in California. Kaisa, a concentration camp survivor, relates her experience at Disney World and references the sound of a train whistle running through the park as the reminder of the train whistle and train that deported her to Ravensbruck where she suffered from such medical experiments.
Several days after finishing that novel, I watched the movie Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks. Hanks played a lawyer whose mission was to trade a Russian spy for Gary Powers, a famous pilot captured by the Russians during the Cold War in the 1950s. Tom Hanks’ character arrived in Germany just as the Wall dividing East and West Germany, Communist and Free, is being built. In one scene, while rumbling on a train through the city, he witnessed several wannabe escapees attempting to scale the Wall to freedom only to be savagely executed by guards standing in a watchtower with machine guns.
As the movie progressed and after Hanks has successfully completed his assignment and returned to the states, he is traveling by train into Manhattan when he sees several teens scaling a chain link fence in a backyard of row houses. As one watches, it becomes obvious by his facial contortions that one recognizes Hanks is transported to that moment in Germany when he witnessed several desperate souls trying to capture their freedom by climbing over the Wall.
These are just two examples of what we know as Triggers: experiences that create a feeling or action that others cannot understand or have no recognition or knowledge. Such triggers color our behavior in ways that, at times, are as mysterious to us as to others. Triggers can be in the form of sound, like the train whistle, or sight, like the children climbing a fence. They can also be activated by the remaining senses of smell, touch, and taste.
Triggers may cause a person to react or behave in unexpected ways. While this may often leave others bewildered, it is a phenomenon that all humans experience given their unique history and reality. Psychologists recommend acknowledging the trigger, taking the time to make the connection between the new reality and the “flashback.” Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome involves past experiences that loom and create flashbacks and flooding of memories that are significant and powerful.
When startled or confused by another’s behavior it would be worthy to stop and consider what trauma or memories created a reaction that to another is inexplicable. It is the ability to step back, reflect, and consider the many possible reasons for why we or another might respond in ways that can be difficult to otherwise understand or accept. The sudden jolt of a welcomed or unwelcomed memory via our senses is how best to explain the concept of triggers. It is the revisiting of a significant event that often can leave one befuddled, upset, or pleasantly transported to an event that occurred long ago.