Types of Trauma Triggers


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Seventy percent of adults have experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives. Traumatic events can range from witnessing war or violence to experiencing child abuse or neglect. 

Of those who experience trauma, 20 percent will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD are brought on by trauma triggers. These triggers bring on uncomfortable feelings or memories of the traumatic event.

The unfortunate reality is that it is almost impossible to avoid trauma triggers completely. Luckily, there are steps you can take to identify your trauma triggers. You can also learn how to manage trauma triggers so that you can continue to live a healthy life after trauma. 

Read on to learn everything you need to know about trauma triggers.

What Is a Trauma Trigger?

A trauma trigger is anything that triggers the feelings of trauma. It is developed during a traumatic event, such as:

  • war/violence
  • child abuse or neglect 
  • physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • accidents and natural disasters
  • grief and loss

What Causes Trauma Triggers?

When facing a traumatic event, your brain is on high alert. As a result, it may not process the event right away. If the event is not stored in your memory as a past event, it can lead to PTSD.

During the traumatic event, your brain associates different details with the traumatic memory. These details could be anything, such as emotions, sights, or smells.

Since your brain does not recognize that the danger is in the past, encountering these trauma triggers can bring back the feelings or memories of the traumatic event.

Triggers may seem unrelated to the trauma that occurred. They are caused by associations that your brain makes as a protective measure. For example, if you smelled a certain scent leading up to a traumatic event, your brain may begin to associate that scent with danger.

What Happens When You Encounter Trauma Triggers?

Encountering these triggers can cause PTSD reactions such as:

  • anxiety or panic attacks
  • vivid flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • violence or aggression
  • extreme bouts of sadness
  • substance abuse to lessen the pain

Types of Trauma Triggers

Anything from a smell or sound to a negative feeling or emotion can become a trauma trigger. There are two main types of trauma triggers: internal triggers and external triggers.

Internal Triggers 

Internal triggers happen within your body. Memories, feelings, emotions, or bodily sensations (like a racing heart or sweaty palms) can trigger PTSD. Examples of internal triggers include: 

  • feelings of anger or anxiety
  • feeling abandoned, lonely, or vulnerable
  • feelings of frustration or sadness
  • memories
  • pain or muscle tension

External Triggers

External triggers, on the other hand, happen outside of your body. Situations, people, or places can trigger PTSD symptoms and bring back feelings of the traumatic event. Examples of external triggers include:

  • anniversaries of trauma
  • seeing a person connected to the traumatic event
  • smells or sounds
  • a television show or movie that reminds you of the traumatic event
  • a news article that reminds you of the traumatic event

These triggers can bring on uncomfortable or debilitating memories or feelings, whether from acute stress disorder or PTSD. While the triggers cannot be avoided completely, identifying the source can be helpful in managing PTSD symptoms.

How to Identify Trauma Triggers

Since trauma triggers are not always obvious, you may not realize what is triggering the feelings or memories of trauma. To help determine the cause of these feelings, you can think about what typically happens when you experience PTSD.

  • What types of situations are you in?
  • What is going on around you during an episode of PTSD?
  • What thoughts and emotions are you experiencing?
  • What does your body feel like?

It is important to consider both the internal and external situations you are in as either can become a PTSD trigger after a traumatic event. If you are unable to pinpoint the trigger of your PTSD symptoms, a close family member or friend may be able to help identify triggers. 

A therapist can also help determine the origin of your trauma response by helping you examine the environment of your PTSD reaction. 

How to Manage Trauma Triggers

Many people cope with trauma triggers in unhealthy ways, such as substance abuse or simply keeping those traumatic events bottled in. However, there are much better ways to deal with symptoms of PTSD that can allow you to continue to live a healthy life after trauma.

The best way to manage trauma triggers is to avoid them. Unfortunately, in the real world, this isn’t always possible. Luckily, there are other ways to cope with exposure to trauma triggers.

Being aware of your triggers is a great first step to coping with PTSD. An awareness of what is happening to you can help you feel less out of control when you encounter unavoidable triggers.

Relaxation Techniques for Trauma Triggers

Many people also find relaxation techniques helpful for coping with the symptoms of PTSD. These include exercises such as:

Therapy for Coping with Trauma Triggers

Beyond awareness and relaxation techniques, therapy can help with PTSD triggers.

Exposure therapy is a common treatment for PTSD. Exposure therapy involves prolonged exposure to a trauma trigger. This can remove the trigger from the traumatic context and allow you to experience the trigger without the trauma response.

Other types of therapy that are beneficial for those with PTSD include:

Steps for Change Can Help With Trauma Triggers

PTSD symptoms are unpleasant at best and debilitating at worst. Luckily, by recognizing trauma triggers and developing coping strategies, you can live a normal life after trauma.

Steps For Change offers evidence-based treatments that can help you overcome your trauma. Contact us today to learn how we can help you cope with PTSD symptoms.