Understanding PTSD Triggers and How to Cope With Them
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Have you ever walked through a crowded mall and suddenly felt a wave of anxiety wash over you? Or maybe a loud bang makes you feel like you’ll jump out of your skin, even if it’s just a car backfiring. For people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), everyday sights, sounds or smells can trigger powerful memories of a terrifying event. These triggers aren’t about being scared of ordinary things. They’re your brain’s way of trying to keep you safe after you’ve been through stressful, frightening or distressing events or after prolonged exposure to trauma. Some traumatic events that can trigger PTSD include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Serious accident
  • Natural disaster
  • Combat exposure
  • Childhood trauma
  • Medical trauma
  • Witnessing a traumatic event
  • Surviving a terrorist attack
  • Military sexual trauma
  • Sudden loss
  • Serious illness
  • Racial trauma
  • LGBTQ+ trauma and discrimination

PTSD develops in around 1 in 3 people who experience severe trauma, affecting approximately 6% of the American population at some point in their lives. It’s not fully understood why only some people develop the condition while others don’t; still, the majority of people who experience severe trauma don’t develop PTSD. PTSD affects each person differently, but common symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Negative changes in mood and beliefs
  • Hyperarousal symptoms
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Hypervigilance
  • Emotional reactivity
  • Physical symptoms 
  • Suicidality

Types of PTSD triggers

PTSD triggers can be all around you even if it feels like symptoms can come out of the blue. PTSD symptoms can be triggered by two types of triggers:

  • Internal triggers — Internal triggers are triggers that come from within you, such as:
  • Memories — Thoughts or memories of the traumatic event
  • Emotions — Fear, anger, sadness or shame similar to what you felt during the trauma
  • Bodily sensations — Racing heart rate, sweating or muscle tension if they remind you of how you felt during the traumatic event
  • Cognitive triggers — Thoughts or beliefs that remind you of the trauma, like feeling vulnerable or abandoned
  • External triggers — External triggers are triggers that happen in the outside world that can remind you of the traumatic event. These triggers can include:
  • Sensory triggers — Sights, sounds, smells, tastes or touches that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Situational triggers — Places, events or situations that are similar to the traumatic event

Identifying your PTSD triggers

The first step to coping with your triggers is to figure out what they are. Some of your triggers may be obvious and easy to identify. Other triggers may be subtle and not really noticeable until you’ve had a negative reaction. Here are some tips to help you identify your triggers:

  • Keep a journal — Write down situations, sights, sounds or thoughts that caused you distress. Pay attention to how you were feeling physically and emotionally after being exposed.
  • Pay attention to your body — When you experience a sudden surge of anxiety, anger, fear or sadness, you can make a mental note of what was happening around you or what you were thinking about just before.
  • Talk to a therapist — Working with a therapist or other qualified mental health professional can give you a great partner to help you identify your triggers. They can guide you through the process and provide you with support. 

Coping with your PTSD triggers

Once you know what your triggers are, you can start to develop healthy coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms can help you navigate challenging situations:

  • Self-help coping skills — These are coping mechanisms you can use on your own to help you manage your anxiety and emotional responses when you face a trigger. Here are some examples:
  • Deep breathing exercises — Focus on taking slow, steady breaths. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth.
  • Grounding techniques — Grounding techniques can help you stay in the present moment and help you distract yourself from overwhelming emotions. For example, you can use the five senses technique. Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
  • Positive self-talk — You can challenge negative thoughts by telling yourself positive affirmations like, “I’ve gotten through tough things before and I can get through this too.”
  • Seek support — You can talk to a trusted friend, family member or therapist about what you’re going through. A support system can make a huge difference.
  • Therapy — While self-help strategies can be effective in the moment, professional therapy plays a crucial part in managing PTSD. Working with a therapist can help you regain a sense of control over your life, process traumatic experiences and learn coping skills to help manage symptoms. Types of therapy treatment strategies that can help with PTSD include:
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD (CBT-PTSD)
  • Eye movement, desensitization, and restructuring (EMDR
  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PE)
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
  • Medication — Medication can be a helpful addition to therapy and self-help strategies. Medications can help manage symptoms like depression, anxiety and insomnia, which can co-occur with PTSD. Common medications that can be prescribed for PTSD include:
  • Zoloft
  • Paxil
  • Effexor

Lightfully Behavioral Health can help you with a holistic approach to healing from PTSD

At Lightfully Behavioral Health, we take a unique approach to PTSD treatment with our clinical model: process-based therapy (PBT). You can think of PBT as a fully personalized framework that uses components from the most effective aspects of evidence-based modalities for PTSD like CBT, CPT, and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). It also incorporates compassion-based and somatic therapies to help target the drivers behind PTSD and its symptoms. This multidimensional treatment allows us to provide you with whole-person-centered care provided by deeply compassionate experts. We can help you overcome the emotional and cognitive processes causing your struggles and empower you to manage your thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, contact us. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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