PTSD Triggers

Module 2: PTSD Triggers

PTSD triggers are any feelings, thoughts, situations, people, objects, sounds, smells, and even noises that can elicit uncomfortable emotional and physical symptoms. These all have to potential of affecting your actions and reactions to your surrounding environment. For example, you can have memories of the traumatic event (flashbacks) or feelings of being on edge (hyperarousal), anxiety, and even jumpy, and these can affect how you react to your family, how you drive, how you perform simple and complex tasks, or even how you relate to your boss or coworkers.

PTSD triggers can be internal or external in nature. Internal triggers are those things you feel and experience inside your own body. These include thoughts, memories, emotions, physical sensations, and the like. External triggers are any outside influences you must deal with throughout your day.  Situations, places, people, or other things that happen outside your body are external triggers.

Although it may feel as if your PTSD symptoms occur spontaneously, this is not the case. PTSD symptoms generally occur after a trigger sets them off. The best way to prevent "out of control" situations is to learn about and pinpoint your triggers. You must learn to become aware of them and manage them ahead of time before they disrupt your day.

Some PTSD triggers are obvious, such as seeing a movie with a sexual assault scene. Others are less clear. For example, if your traumatic experience happened during a rainy day, seeing the rain could upset you.

Non-PTSD sufferers process traumatic experiences with less impediments. They bounce back without ruminating too long on the events. But the PTSD brain doesn’t process trauma right away. After a traumatic experience, the brain doesn’t store bad memories in a filing cabinet. The disorganized and untrained PTSD brain leaves bad memories lingering around your head, unrestrained.

This lack of mental organization results in the PTSD sufferer feeling stressed and afraid even when there’s no imminent danger around.

Triggers happen because the PTSD brain attaches details of the trauma (e.g., smells, sounds, sights, tastes, touch) to memory, making those details act like red buttons that put your body’s alarm system on high alert.

It could be a coworker’s cologne, or the sight of someone who looks like an attacker. It could be the sound of a crash, or the unannounced hug from a friend. PTSD triggers come in all shapes, forms, and colors.

Part of retraining your brain to regain control is ingrained in fully identifying the people, objects, situations, etc. that have the potential of throwing you off balance. This will help you manage how triggers enter your senses and negatively influence your actions and reactions, affecting your sense of safety, trust, control, self-esteem, and intimacy.

Identifying Your PTSD Triggers

Identifying Your PTSD Triggers

To counteract the unnecessary reactivity that triggers have on the PTSD brain, you must learn ways to identify occurrences, situations, and behaviors that tend to trigger your symptoms. Anyone can learn to anticipate them, keep your distance, or get in front of them and take appropriate action to prevent them from impacting your life.

By nature, traumatic experiences are distressing, and post-traumatic reactions of shock and distress are normal. Most people recover naturally, helped by adequate social support. In the accompanying website you will find a Reactions to Trauma Info Sheet. It’s an informational handout designed for survivors of traumatic events. It includes essential information about trauma and lists common post-traumatic reactions. It also includes advice on helping a friend or loved one who has been through a trauma. BE AWARE that Increasing awareness of triggers WILL bring you distress. You must fight through and conquer the fear to move forward.

What Can Be a PTSD Trigger?

Internal Triggers:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Bad memories
  • Frustration
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling vulnerable
  • Increased heart beat
  • Muscle tension pain

External Triggers:

  • Trauma reminders and arguments
  • Seeing a car accident
  • Certain smells
  • A relationship ending
  • A date
  • Holidays
  • A specific place
  • Personal reminder of trauma

Thoughts and Emotions:

This is a big one for PTSD sufferers, especially when intrusive thoughts kick in the brain. After a traumatic experience, certain negative feelings can come back to haunt you. For example, if you feel afraid, helpless, or stressed, these can trigger PTSD symptoms.


Some sensations, such as touch or pain, can be powerful triggers. For example, flashbacks of an assault can be triggered if a survivor is touched on a certain part of the body, or for some, touched at all.


Seeing an object that reminds you of the traumatic experience can awaken your PTSD symptoms. For example, if you were attacked at knife point, seeing someone use a knife can trigger your symptoms. If your trauma is car crash related, driving may trigger your symptoms.


Seeing someone related to or that reminds you of the traumatic experience could set off a negative reaction in your brain. For example, if your deceased battle buddy had a beard, anyone with a beard may bring back memories. If the barista at the coffee shop resembles your attacker, this could trigger you.


If you returning to the scene of your trauma can set off PTSD symptoms. For example, if you’re watching the news and they air the location of your attack, that could be enough to bring on a reaction. Also, if you revisit the location of your traumatic experience, this can set you off.

TV, Internet, Movies:

Watching a scene that resembles your traumatic experience could be a trigger. For example, watching a war scene in a movie can give a war veteran flashbacks. Watching a person be sexually assaulted in a movie could set off triggers for a rape survivor.


As do our other senses, the power of smells has strong ties to memories and can serve as triggers for PTSD symptoms. For example, if your house burned down, something as simple as a campfire can trigger memories. If someone in an elevator has the same cologne as your attacker, the smell of it can set your triggers off.


PTSD sufferers may tie certain situations to traumatic memories. Sometimes they do it even if the situation is not related or does not resemble the actual negative experience. For example, someone who was held captive may have negative memories if they get stuck in an elevator, unrelated to claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces).

How to Deal with PTSD Triggers

How to Deal with PTSD Triggers

Learning about and anticipating when an internal or external force is about to set you off is perhaps the most valuable step towards permanently healing from PTSD. You may not get to a point where nothing bothers or triggers you but being able to get ahead of the major culprits will give you control and bring peace to your PTSD life.

When you have PTSD, you worry about almost anything because PTSD sufferers perceive the surrounding environment as dangerous and uncertain, allowing almost any trigger to get the best of them. Because so many things have the potential to trigger a negative response, it can be quite frustrating to deal with PTSD triggers, even more without coping strategies. It is imperative you start collecting information about it. This information will be helpful when it is time to find mechanisms that will allow you to prepare for any trigger before it sets you off.

Once you identify the situations that have the potential of setting you off, you can use the information collected in your worksheets to draft and implement coping strategies. These are conscious mechanisms and skills that will help you tackle your PTSD symptoms. Don’t be a mindless fighter, be a warrior with a purpose.

Two of the most impacting symptoms of PTSD are intrusive thoughts and catastrophic thinking. These two symptoms can turn any trigger, big or small, into an uncontrollable situation. If unmanaged, both symptoms can ruin your day, week, month, and greatly affect your personal and professional life.

Intrusive thoughts and catastrophic thinking are the invasive species that doesn't allow you to keep moving or growing as a person. They are PTSD's allies and having knowledge of when intrusive thoughts kick in will help you control the catastrophic thinking that follows.

Knowing when the thoughts are coming, controlling their impact on your behavior, and discovering the source of your triggers is perhaps the single most valuable skill you can learn to control your PTSD symptoms and regain control of your life. You can achieve this through a concept known as self-monitoring.