Distressing life events — like accidents, illnesses, and assaults — often lead to trauma. Each person processes these events differently.
Some people will have a subconscious reaction to things that remind them of the original trauma. These reminders are called trauma triggers, and they can be a common issue for people living with unhealed trauma.
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What Is A Trauma Trigger?
A trauma trigger is a stimulus that causes memories or reactions to severe or sustained trauma. For example:
- You get a tight feeling in your chest every time you drive past the place where you had a car accident.
- Your palms sweat and your cheeks flush when a certain person touches you.
- You walk into a medical facility and the smell brings you back to your previous surgeries, making you feel nauseous.
Renowned expert Bessel van der Kolk describes this trauma trigger phenomenon in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. He also explains why survivors of childhood trauma be triggered frequently throughout their lifetime — even if they can’t always explain why.
How Do People Respond To Trauma Triggers?
Experts in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) say anything that reminds you of what happened before or during a trauma counts as a potential trigger. And as van der Kolk affirms, a person may still be triggered without consciously remembering or retaining specific details such as the date of the event or the people involved.
For example, an abuse victim may not always be triggered by seeing abuse portrayed in a movie, but a certain smell may remind them of the perpetrator or event, causing them to flee the situation in real-time.
In some stressful situations, tensions may be building for a while, but it’s ultimately the trigger that is the catalyst, causing any of the three fear responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Trauma triggers can also come on suddenly and unexpectedly, without build-up.
When a traumatic memory triggers someone, there’s usually an external reaction — maybe a friend storms off when you mention a certain person’s name, or a song comes on the radio and your spouse’s mood turns sour. But it’s not always evident to the triggered person — or their witnesses — what brought on the painful memory or sudden reaction.
Causes Of Trauma Triggers
A history of trauma or traumatic events can result in trauma triggers. A person’s reactions to trauma triggers can be more intense and frequent if they have not received trauma treatment.
Triggers are not always direct, external causes. While the trigger may produce a physical reaction, sometimes the trigger itself comes from an internal source rather than one of the tangible five senses. That’s why it’s important to differentiate between internal and external triggers.
Examples of external trauma triggers
Listed below are the most common ways a person may be triggered by an external event or stimulus, via a recent VeryWell.com article:
- An anniversary date
- Financial problems
- Physical illness
- A violent movie
- Being in a crowded place
- Loud noises
- Seeing someone else use drugs
Examples of internal trauma triggers
Sometimes you can’t see or feel the reason for a trigger, but a strong emotion overwhelms the person triggered. Many trauma triggers are closely connected to these deep-seated feelings:
- Feeling abandoned
- Feeling out of control
Living With Trauma Triggers
For those who have experienced a lot of trauma in their life constant reminders of painful memories may trigger more than just physical sensations or aversions. Trauma triggers can also produce feelings of sadness, shame, or stress (feelings which can be triggers themselves).
In some cases, these feelings may lead a person to engage in addictive or destructive behaviors (substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, etc.). These are unhealthy attempts to deal with the physical or emotional pain of their trauma triggers. These behaviors and patterns are harmful to the individual and also can have a negative impact on the person’s relationships with others.
Eliminating all trauma triggers isn’t always possible, and you can’t undo past traumas. However, there is hope and help available to those living with trauma triggers.
Increased, conscious awareness of trauma triggers is a positive first step. Next, you can seek professional help, engage in therapeutic interventions, and find support to encourage healthy relationships and personal growth.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.