PTSD Triggers: How to Identify, Cope, and Overcome Them
Last Updated: November 6, 2023
If you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you might feel your symptoms come and go. You might feel fine, and then all of a sudden, something triggers your symptoms again. You could feel terrified all at once and seemingly out of nowhere. Triggers can bring back intense memories and spark PTSD symptoms.
A PTSD trigger can be a thought, smell, sound or sight. When you are exposed to a trigger, it could remind you of the traumatic event directly or indirectly.
What is PTSD?
Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, occurs when you witness something traumatic. The traumatic exposure could be to a single event or a series of events. Traumatic events contributing to PTSD can be life-threatening and both emotionally or physically harmful.
Examples of events leading to PTSD can include:
- Being in a severe accident or witnessing one.
- Natural disasters.
- Terrorist attacks.
- War or combat.
- Intimate partner violence.
- Historical trauma.
- Rape or sexual assault.
Someone with PTSD will experience:
- Intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings relating to the experience long after the event ends.
- Reliving the event in nightmares or flashbacks.
- Feelings of anger, sadness, or fear.
- Detachment from other people.
- Avoidance of events that could be a reminder of the trauma.
- Intense adverse reactions to ordinary, daily things, like a loud noise.
The symptoms of PTSD are grouped into four categories:
- Intrusion can involve unwanted thoughts, distressing dreams or flashbacks.
- Avoidance means you go out of your way to avert anything that could remind you of the traumatic exposure.
- Changes in mood and cognition, like negative or distorted thoughts about yourself, ongoing fear or guilt, or self-blame.
- Arousal and reactivity symptoms, like irritability, angry outbursts, or being especially vigilant.
Many people will have symptoms like the ones above right after witnessing something scary or traumatic. For a PTSD diagnosis, the symptoms last for more than a month. The signs also cause significant feelings of distress or problems in day-to-day functionality.
Most people will develop PTSD symptoms within three months of their traumatic exposure, but it could be longer before the signs occur. Commonly, PTSD will co-occur with other conditions, including substance use, depression, and physical health problems.
How Do Triggers Develop?
PTSD triggers can develop before or during a traumatic event exposure. Seemingly small feelings or moments occurring in the lead-up to the event can cause trigger responses.
Our brains will associate triggers with a potential threat or danger. For example, you might have heard footsteps before the traumatic event, and then your brain will continue associating that trigger with danger, making it a warning signal.
It’s also possible for your brain to associate with a trigger seemingly unrelated to the trauma event. Then, if you come across that trigger, it may cause you to re-experience the trauma.
Triggers can cause complications like anxiety and panic attacks, an overactive startle response or the feeling of needing to numb the pain and emotions with substances.
What Are Common Types of Triggers?
Triggers of PTSD can depend on the sounds, sights, or people around before or during an event perceived as traumatic. Some people are very aware of their triggers, but others may be unsure of what causes them to relive the experience of trauma. Regardless, they’re linked to a fear response that’s considered extreme.
Potential types of triggers for PTSD can include:
- People, like those near you when the event happened or those who inflicted trauma on you.
- Places linked to the event.
- Feelings like stress, panic, or worry can be triggers of PTSD because your brain associates them with the trauma.
- Objects can be anything like a type of car, a certain article of clothing, or anything notable related to the lead-up or experience of trauma.
- Scents, such as smoke or a particular perfume or cologne smell.
- Sounds can be triggers, especially for people in war or victims of violence.
- Anniversaries of significant dates can create anxiety and trigger memories related to trauma.
How to Identify and Recognize PTSD Triggers
It’s not always easy or obvious what PTSD triggers are. Even if you have PTSD, you might not know what makes you feel a certain way, such as angry or fearful. Identifying sensory-related triggers, such as tastes, colors, or smells, is challenging.
Talk therapy or working with a psychiatrist or other mental health professional is needed for many people to identify triggers.
You also have to recognize the behaviors in yourself that indicate you’ve experienced a trigger because they’re different for everyone with PTSD. For example, you might react with anger or aggression rather than fear or panic.
Treatment Options for Managing PTSD Triggers
You don’t have to manage your PTSD triggers alone. Treatment options are available and are incredibly helpful for the treatment of PTSD, which includes identifying and learning to manage triggers.
It can seem counterintuitive, but strategies that expose you to triggers can help with PTSD management. You want to make the trigger something that no longer creates an association in your brain or has meaning for you.
You can also participate in support groups and may find mindfulness and relaxation strategies beneficial.
The types of professional therapy and treatment approaches that can be used as part of healing PTSD and managing triggers include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Group therapy
- Prolonged exposure therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Family therapy
Your treatment team will help you to determine the most appropriate treatments for your unique needs.
We Can Help You Cope with PTSD Symptoms
The Recovery Village Kansas City now offers mental health counseling as part of our addiction treatment programs and independently of addiction. If you’d like to learn how to manage your PTSD triggers and deal with your symptoms healthily, contact us. We can also work with special populations, including veterans and people who’ve gone through specific types of trauma, like complex posttraumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD.
American Psychiatric Association. “What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? November 2022. Accessed October 19, 2023.
National Center for PTSD. “Trauma Reminders: Triggers.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed October 19, 2023.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Co-Occurring Conditions.” Accessed October 25, 2023.
NIH National Institute of Mental Health. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” 2023. Accessed October 19, 2023.
Giorou, Evangelina, et al. “Complex posttraumatic stress disorder: The need to consolidate a distinct clinical syndrome or to reevaluate features of psychiatric disorders following interpersonal trauma?” World Journal of Psychiatric, March 22, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2023.