When you encounter a trigger after trauma, a strong emotional and behavioral reaction comes over you. It’s as if you are reliving that trauma all over again.
The word “triggered” has become a popular term to describe anything that causes emotional discomfort. But for people who have experienced trauma, triggers can be terrifying, all-consuming, and can seemingly come out of nowhere.
Trauma triggers can be anything that reminds you of a past trauma — which might include a certain smell, a particular song or sound, or a piece of clothing. Triggers are unique to the individual.
Trauma is known to have a long lasting and repetitive effect on our minds. However, there is hope for those who experience trauma’s aftereffects. Trauma-informed care and other treatments can help you can live a happy and fulfilling life.
A trigger can be anything that sparks a memory of a trauma, or a part of a trauma.
When you encounter a trigger, memories and thoughts associated with the trauma come back without warning. You cannot stop the intrusive thoughts, and in response, you feel a turn in your emotions and begin to react.
A trigger might make you feel helpless, panicked, unsafe, and overwhelmed with emotion. You might feel the same things that you felt at the time of the trauma, as though you were reliving the event.
The mind perceives triggers as a threat and causes a reaction like fear, panic, or agitation. Think of the reaction to triggers as a defense mechanism: The memory of the traumatic event places you right back into the experience, which causes your walls to go up against the perceived threat in an attempt to protect yourself.
Flashbacks, although uncommon, can be set off by triggers.
How we respond when triggered depends on the person and can range in severity.
After encountering a trigger, it can take some time for your nervous system to recover and return to baseline. This is partly because trauma reduces your window of tolerance — the emotional zone in which you feel grounded, balanced, and calm. A smaller window of tolerance means stressors are more likely to cause greater emotional upset.
Experiencing triggers is a defining feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Triggers are often key events in which PTSD symptoms arise or are noticed.
Healing from trauma is challenging and takes time. It may feel like the easiest way to overcome it is to avoid it or pretend it isn‘t happening. However, it is best to spot your triggers to learn how to manage them instead of avoiding them.
Even if you’re not sure what has triggered you, there are steps you can take. When a trigger leaves you feeling emotionally flooded, you can try following these steps to soothe and regulate your nervous system:
- Focus on what’s happening in the here and now.
- Remind yourself that this is a common reaction to a traumatic event, and you can get through it.
- Perform breathing exercises to calm your mind.
- Manage the trigger with different ways to cope, such as using the flashback halting protocol.
Responses to trauma are very individualized. Chances are, two people who experience a similar traumatic event won’t share triggers or have the same symptoms afterward.
Trauma triggers vary widely between people, and they can be anything at all, such as feeling a certain emotion, encountering an everyday event, or seeing a highly specific pattern. Some examples of possible trauma triggers include:
Hearing a specific sound can lead to an unwanted response and trigger our bodies to react and feel unsafe, even in a secure environment. Some examples of trigger sounds can include:
- sounds of crying
- someone yelling
Seeing a particular item, environment, or person can easily be a trigger. For example, after a car accident, seeing a similar car to the one you were driving at the time of the traumatic event can lead to an unwanted response.
Some other examples include seeing:
- people of similar ages and characteristics to others involved in the traumatic situation
- an intoxicated person
- a building or place
- healthcare professionals, such as first responders
- a piece of clothing
Our senses connect directly to our brains and constantly send messages as we interact with the world around us.
Smells are closely linked with memory. It’s easy for a smell to bring up mental images and feelings you associate with that smell, like the smell of cinnamon evoking memories of Christmas.
When we smell something, our brain immediately tries to identify the scent. As it works on figuring it out, it can also jog memories of when we’ve encountered that same scent before.
Possible triggers that come from smells include:
- a fragrance or cologne
- alcoholic drinks
- grilling meats
- certain foods or drinks
Sometimes, we may find ourselves in certain situations that trigger a traumatic memory. Some circumstances that trigger emotions may be:
- speaking with an authority figure
- encountering someone with perceived narcissism
- driving in a car
- experiencing rejection
- experiencing a violation of your boundaries
- unwanted physical touch
Sometimes, a particular emotion is associated with the traumatic event. You might encounter a seemingly manageable situation as an adult in which you feel helpless, which might remind you of times when you were truly helpless as a child. This could then trigger memories of childhood experiences, causing emotional flooding and overwhelm.
Other examples of emotional triggers are:
- feeling ignored
- sensing abandonment
- feeling sad or crying
Sometimes, you can quickly identify a trigger and begin to anticipate it. However, our triggers can also be subtle and even surprising. Once you identify a trigger, you’ve taken the first step to learning to manage it.
Triggers often feel unpredictable, but when we identify our triggers, we find connections between events, feelings, or sights that cause an immediate emotional or behavioral reaction. There are different ways to accomplish this.
First, you can start a journal and write down your thoughts, feelings, and environment at the time of your flashbacks or feelings of panic. Prompts on what to write may include:
- What did you hear?
- What did you see?
- What did you smell?
- How were you feeling?
Then, you can begin making connections and identifying similarities to identify your triggers.
If you are ready to seek professional help for possible trauma symptoms, you can work with a psychotherapist or counselor to identify your potential triggers. An experienced mental health professional can also provide an outside view of your reactions and help you locate their possible causes.
When you are reminded of a life changing traumatic event, it can take over your life and lead to adverse effects on your psychological and physical health. If you feel ready to talk to someone about it, consider looking for trauma-focused treatment.
Treatments supported by frontline research can drastically decrease the frequency of the effects of triggers — for example, decreasing intrusive memories. These treatments include prolonged exposure (PE) therapy and cognitive processing therapy (CPT).
You can learn more about recovering from trauma by checking out this article titled, Can you recover from trauma? Spoiler alert: You can recover from trauma!