Recognizing PTSD Triggers

Author: IAFF Staff

September 28, 2018

If you or someone you love struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the world can feel like a minefield. You never know when you’re going to have an experience that causes your symptoms to flare up. However, while symptoms may seem to come out of nowhere, in most cases, symptoms are cued by internal and external factors called triggers.

While living with PTSD can be overwhelming, the good news is that help is available. By working with a mental health professional to understand your triggers, you can more effectively manage your symptoms and begin the process of healing.

How PTSD Triggers Develop

During life-threatening or dangerous situations, the body goes into fight-or-flight mode. In this survival mode, your heart rate increases, and your senses are on high alert, absorbing as much information as they can. The brain halts some normal functions, such as short-term memory, to make this extreme vigilance possible. While these physiological changes can help you cope with real or perceived danger in the short term, it makes processing traumatic events more difficult in the long term.

When a trauma isn’t fully processed, the brain acts as if the original threat is still present, even months or years after the incident occurred. Any small details associated with the memory can make you feel like you’re experiencing the trauma all over again, triggering symptoms of PTSD.  People, places, things or experiences that remind you of your traumatic event are considered triggers.

Different Types of PTSD Triggers

PTSD triggers typically fall into one of two categories: internal triggers and external triggers. Internal triggers encompass what you experience inside your body, including thoughts, emotions, memories and bodily sensations. External triggers are people, places or situations that happen outside the body and mind that remind you of the traumatic event.

Examples of internal triggers include:

  • Memories tied to the traumatic event
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Pain
  • Muscle tension
  • Feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, abandoned or out of control

Examples of external triggers include:

  • Seeing someone related to the trauma
  • Encountering someone with physical traits that remind you of someone involved in the trauma
  • TV shows, movies or news articles that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Certain sounds involved in the trauma, such as yelling or sirens
  • Visual cues related to the trauma, such as a specific color, piece of clothing, house, or street sign
  • Smells associated with trauma, such as smoke
  • Specific words or phrases
  • The anniversary of the trauma

Becoming Aware of PTSD Triggers

While some PTSD triggers might be obvious, others are difficult to determine. If you cope with post-traumatic stress, think of past situations where your symptoms flared up. Where were you and what was happening around you? What thoughts were running through your mind? Chances are, many of your PTSD episodes have been brought on by recurring triggers that you experience.

Because PTSD symptoms are often emotionally and physically overwhelming, it can be difficult to uncover your triggers on your own. The best way to identify triggers is to explore them with a mental health professional. In this safe and supportive environment, you can gradually learn what internal and external triggers affect you and develop strategies to cope with them. Over time, you can process your traumatic experience and regain control over your daily experience.

Man affected by his PTSD internal trigger, sadness.

Dealing with PTSD can be difficult, but you don’t have to cope with the disorder alone. At the IAFF Center of Excellence, professionals are trained to meet the needs of fire fighters and paramedics. With specialized care and peer support, healing is possible. Your health and happiness are worth it. If you’re ready to take the first step toward a better life, reach out to a representative today for more information. Your call is toll-free and completely confidential.


Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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