Mental Health

Understanding PTSD Triggers

While it may feel isolating, PTSD is one of the most common mental health disorders today, and with proper care you can find relief and recovery.

With PTSD, symptoms may seem to appear out of the blue. Moving on after trauma is challenging enough on its own; when you’re facing an ongoing battle with PTSD, recovery can feel overwhelming.

Once primarily associated with military combat or extreme disasters, we now know that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can occur after any traumatic incident. And it’s more common than you might think: as many as 8 out of every 100 people will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives.

Understanding PTSD triggers—what they are, when they occur, and how they present—is an essential step towards recovery. By identifying the source of your symptoms, you can feel more prepared for the next time they appear.

What Can Trigger PTSD Symptoms?

Each individual’s trauma is different, so PTSD triggers vary from person to person. A trigger that affects you greatly could have no impact at all on another person.

PTSD triggers typically fit into two categories: internal or external. Internal PTSD triggers include memories, dreams, feelings, emotions, or sensations within the body that relate to the trauma, while external triggers encompass objects, environments, or experiences in the physical world.

How to Identify Your PTSD Triggers

Your PTSD symptoms may seem to occur randomly, but there is often an underlying trigger linked to trauma. Even a small detail like hearing a door slam, smelling smoke from a campfire, or simply feeling strong emotions can trigger PTSD. 

To understand and identify your triggers, try recalling a time when you experienced PTSD symptoms. External triggers are more easily identified, so you may begin by recalling your physical setting when the symptoms occurred:

  • Did you see a person with certain physical characteristics that reminded you of the trauma?
  • Was there a visual stimulus such as a color or a specific item nearby?
  • Did your physical location (for example, being in an enclosed space or a dark room) 
  • Was there a TV show, movie, photograph, or another depiction relating to the trauma that triggered you?
  • Did you hear a specific sound?
  • Did a person say a certain word or phrase?
  • Was there a scent or taste reminiscent of the traumatic incident?

After examining your physical environment, you will also need to consider potential internal PTSD triggers:

  • Were you nervous or anxious at the time?
  • Did you feel lonely, neglected, or abandoned?
  • Were there any physical sensations within your body, such as pain, tension, or fatigue?
  • Was there a memory relating to the trauma?
  • Were you overwhelmed?
  • Were you angry or upset?
  • Did you feel as if you were losing control?

Taking stock of your triggers may feel uncomfortable, and this process itself may even cause PTSD symptoms to occur. If reflecting on your past PTSD symptoms feels overwhelming or causes emotional distress, you may prefer to work with a mental health professional who can help you navigate these challenging topics in a safe environment.

Managing PTSD Triggers

Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid every potential trigger. Avoidance–significantly changing your routine to avoid encountering triggers, or repressing thoughts, memories, and emotions associated with the trauma–can sometimes do more harm than good. 

Knowing that you will undoubtedly face triggering circumstances in the future, how can you manage in a constructive and healthy way? Having a plan of action in place beforehand is essential, as it provides the tools you need to deescalate a triggering situation, allowing you to center yourself and remain present without becoming overwhelmed. 

Your plan of action may include tools such as meditation, breathing exercises, counting backward from a particular number, writing down your feelings, or focusing on each of your five senses in turn. If you’re unsure which strategy is best for you, try them out at home when you’re in a calm state of mind, or ask your mental health specialist for recommendations.

Asking For Help

If you are struggling with understanding PTSD triggers or finding it hard to deal with symptoms, you are not alone. While it may feel isolating, PTSD is one of the most common mental health disorders today, and with proper care you can find relief and recovery.

Most importantly, seeking professional assistance via therapy or medication is an essential part of managing your triggers and coping with your disorder. Asking for help can feel daunting, but mental health professionals will provide non-judgmental support while you navigate the ins and outs of this disorder, and help you on the journey towards recovery.


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