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What Is the COPE Strategy to Manage Trauma Triggers?

Understanding and managing triggers from a neural network perspective.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science where computers are trained to mimic learning models of the human brain. The way computers are programmed is through networks where data is associated with a web of connections. Borrowing the term from the human brain, these networks are referred to as neural networks. Data is inputted and then linked with previously learned data to further elaborate a network. For example, a simple network may recognize a vehicle but is unable to differentiate which type of vehicle. Similarly, a toddler may recognize “truck” and call everything a truck. However, as the child is exposed to more vehicles, the child will soon be able to differentiate between a fire truck and a garbage truck, thus growing a more developed neural network. If someone is an automotive expert, the person may have a complex network with the ability to differentiate make, model, and year of multiple vehicles.

As humans develop, we learn by assimilating experiences into what is already known by adding the knowledge into an existing network and by accommodating experiences by developing new branches of a network. As one can imagine, after many years, a human would amass a vast network of bits of data. In order to organize and highlight significant versus non-significant experiences, humans use emotions. Emotions both organize and activate experiential neural networks.

For example, if something in the current environment prompts a particular emotion, then that emotional network may become activated and experiences associated with that emotion are readily available. This is also called state-dependent learning, whereby emotions help recall learning that was acquired in that emotional state.

One way to understand this is to imagine a string of holiday lights. The string is a particular emotion (e.g., betrayal, feeling taken advantage of, grief, fear, resentment, and so forth) and the light bulbs are all the experiences over time that evoke a similar emotion. When that string gets plugged in, the light bulbs light up. The person is not only reacting to what is happening in the current situation, but also to all of the other light bulbs associated with the string.

Thus, when someone is accused of “overreacting,” it may very well be that the person is reacting to a lot more than what is visible in the current situation.

This is another way to understand the triggers of trauma. A trigger is when something in the current environment, perceived either consciously or unconsciously, activates a neural network of danger. This initiates a neurochemical chain reaction to help the person protect oneself from danger (e.g., the fight, flight, or freeze response). The person may become hyper-alert to perceptions of danger. This would be an efficient neural network, ready to detect and protect. While this would be adaptive if there was indeed a danger, it becomes very upsetting when there is no imminent danger.

To heal the reaction to triggers, we can discuss a coping skill to manage triggers. However, how to change the neural network itself will be the topic of another post.

Daily challenge: COPE-ing with triggers

The COPE strategy can be used for triggers, intrusive thoughts, or sudden anxiety. C is for cleansing breath. This is a deep breath in through the nose and exhale out of the mouth with a sigh. This will help initiate the inhibitory, or parasympathetic system, to help calm the nervous system. O is for observation—scan the environment, make sure there is no imminent danger. P is for positive self-talk such as, “I am ok, I am safe, I am breathing, this will pass.” E is for explanation, “This was only a trigger. It will peak and subside … the stress will flow through me like water flows through a hose.” Continue to do slow deep breathing until the stress reaction subsides.

Practice COPE to manage triggers as they arise. You may also want to try aromatherapy such as lavender or eucalyptus oil to quickly reduce a stress response. The smell goes to the olfactory nerve which is located in the mid-brain which processes triggers. The beauty of this is that smell by-passes the frontal lobe or verbal thinking part of the brain and works directly on the emotional sensory level.

Suggestion: Write COPE on an index card to keep it with you. Also, since aroma oils can leak, it works to find a travel size quality soap that you can smell and use to calm your nervous system when moving about your day.

More from Lori S. Katz Ph.D.
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