For those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can be a highly painful and disruptive psychological condition. It is estimated to impact almost 7% percent of the adult population in their lifetime and involves symptoms that develop due to experiencing a single or series of traumatic events. If you have no experience with trauma it can seem like a mysterious psychological problem. You might wonder how a person can still feel the effects of past trauma when they are no longer experiencing it.
PTSD triggers are situations that cause those with PTSD to relive their trauma and experience the symptoms intensely. If someone you care about is dealing with PTSD, you should gain an understanding of the triggers so that you can be supportive and help them cope. Here are a few things you need to know about these triggers:
The Cause Of Triggers
Triggers are reminders of traumatic events that a person has experienced. They are a perfect example of classical conditioning. When someone goes through a trauma, there are aspects of the situation that get tucked away in a person’s memory. After the trauma is over, the brain remembers the circumstances that were associated with the event. One common example might be the sound of a siren triggering someone who had a trauma involving a police car or an ambulance. Those associations trigger a re-experiencing of the trauma. It is the reliving of the event that causes the symptoms of PTSD.
Internal triggers come from within the individual. They can be a memory, a physical sensation, or an emotion. For example, say you are exercising on a treadmill and your heart is beating quickly. That sensation might remind you of when you were a child and you would run from an abusive parent. That would be considered an internal trigger. Some common internal triggers may include:
- Feeling out of control
- Muscle tension
External Triggers come from the environment. They can be a person, place, or a specific situation. For example, say you are at a Middle Eastern restaurant. The smells of the food may remind you of a traumatic event you experienced as a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some common external triggers include:
- A movie or television show that reminds you of your traumatic event
- An accident
- Specific sounds
- An anniversary
- A specific place
- A person connected to your traumatic event
Identifying and Anticipating PTSD Triggers
One of the most important aspects of overcoming PTSD is to be able to recognize and anticipate triggers. Sometimes it is easy to identify a trigger. For instance, if you were abused by a certain person, you know that seeing that person is likely to be a trigger. Sometimes, however, identifying a trigger can be more difficult. You can’t always control your environment or internal processes. People with PTSD do not want to be caught unaware. Anticipating triggers allows someone to prepare to deal with them and have a sense of control over their symptoms.
Coping With Triggers
Encountering a trigger can be quite scary. The first impulse is usually to avoid the situation and run away. Avoidance, unfortunately, is not the answer; it is counterproductive to the treatment process. In order to reduce symptoms, triggers need to be confronted therapeutically. It is critical to learn coping skills, such as relaxation techniques, that can help one effectively deal with triggers when they arise.
Final Thoughts on PTSD Triggers
Sometimes, it is incredibly difficult to deal with the symptoms of PTSD without assistance. A person may feel so incapacitated that they cannot bring themselves to confront their triggers. In those cases, they must see a therapist for help. A trained clinician can aid a person in developing healthy coping strategies and refer them to a doctor if medication is necessary. With proper treatment, improvement from the debilitating symptoms of PTSD is almost assured.
- The National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). NIMH. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd
- VanElzakker, M. B., Dahlgren, M. K., Davis, F. C., Dubois, S., & Shin, L. M. (2014). From Pavlov to PTSD: the extinction of conditioned fear in rodents, humans, and anxiety disorders. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 113, 3–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2013.11.014
- Harricharan, S., McKinnon, M. C., & Lanius, R. A. (2021). How Processing of Sensory Information From the Internal and External Worlds Shape the Perception and Engagement With the World in the Aftermath of Trauma: Implications for PTSD. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 15. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2021.625490
- Rudy, J. W., Huff, N. C., & Matus-Amat, P. (2004). Understanding contextual fear conditioning: insights from a two-process model. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 28(7), 675–685. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2004.09.004