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Banish toxic relationship habits by understanding your triggers

Dr. Sarah Woodhouse explains how our ‘little traumas’ throughout life can create toxic triggers that affect our friendships and relationships.

When you think of trauma you think about the major problems. A natural disaster, a war, a major illness, but is it true that all traumas must be monumental to be important?

Speaking on Body+Soul’s daily podcast Healthy-ish, Dr. Sarah Woodhouse, trauma expert, psychologist, author and life coach, explains that little traumas are also significant, and could be to blame for a lot of the toxicity in our relationships.

“Trauma is a reaction. So it’s a reaction to any experience from the past that made us feel overwhelmed, threatened and out of control.”

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Big traumas like wars and natural disasters cause us to feel these things, but everyday situations can too. They’re the ‘little traumas’. Whether its experiences in relationships, with parents, everyday slips and falls, medical procedures – little traumas are difficult to avoid.

“We really need to relook at those, because they can also lead to or many of those can lead to us feeling overwhelmed, threatened and out of control. And if they do, then we’ll experience that traumatic reaction.”

Normalising trauma

Dr. Woodhouse is on a mission to normalise these kinds of little traumas, which are so easily overlooked, or brushed under the rug. “We’ve all experienced it as part of life. So the issue isn’t, ‘have I experienced it’. We all have. It’s ‘am I still experiencing it today?’”

By showing how widespread trauma is, Dr. Woodhouse hopes many will realise it’s completely normal to experience it. Once it is normalised, people will be much more likely to speak about it and work through their issues.

“My dearest hope is that over the next five, 10 years, we all begin to view trauma in the same way,” she explains.

“Yes, some people do have PTSD, but they have quite an intense set of symptoms. If we look further down the scale, we all experience it and have experienced it [trauma] in one way or another.”

Why are we only validating little traumas now?

“The reason that we didn’t understand it before is that we’re only just learning it… It’s such an exciting field to work in and it really is such incredible stuff going on at Harvard and all over the world,” Dr. Woodhouse explains.

She says that any trauma therapist would have been discussing the levels of trauma for years, but the science is only just now catching up. “They see it day in, day out. People coming in with trauma, presenting different levels of trauma, not necessarily severe trauma symptoms, but different trauma symptoms in response to everyday experiences or experiences within relationships.”

“There’s been that bottom up knowledge gradually growing. I suppose it’s taken the research community a little [time]. They’ve taken a bit to get on board with that. But now we’re seeing it all filtered down through research as well.”

So, how is trauma causing toxicity in our relationships

Oh, gosh, that’s such a broad topic, but to answer concisely, but the word that comes to mind is chaos,” Dr. Woodhouse tells Healthy-ish.

“So many of the problems we’re experiencing within our romantic relationships, within our friendships, within our families, when we’re socialising, when we’re at school, so many of the pinch points that are so painful and complicated are happening because of unresolved trauma.”

She uses the example of if a friend of partner uses a certain tone of voice that makes you react. If it happens repeatedly, you’re responding to a trigger; a reminder of a past threat, where you felt overwhelmed, threatened and out of control.

When my husband and I began to think [about it]…we began to talk in these terms and really understand when he’s triggered, when I’m triggered what I’m doing that’s triggering him, what he’s doing that’s triggering me.”

“It’s just totally shifted the dynamics of the relationship and it’s affected my friendships as well for the better, because it allows us all to take responsibility of our reactions rather than making it about the person that is stood in front of us. And that’s the real paradigm shift, isn’t it, within relationships?”

So the key is about insight and understanding?

If you’ve got extreme PTSD, there’s a lot of work that you’re going to need to do, a lot of processing, all the rest of it.”

“But when I’m looking at everyday life, for people that this is resonating with but don’t necessarily have those higher symptom levels, it’s all about insights. You know, they really do set you free and they can set your relationships free.”

Dr Sarah Woodhouse’s book You’re Not Broken (Penguin Random House Australia, $32.99) is available now.