PTSD triggers cause a person to re-experience a traumatic event. Learn about common PTSD triggers and how to treat them.

Traumatic or stressful events are an unfortunate and common part of life. Although the majority of people will experience some sort of trauma in their lifetime, a small percentage of those people will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a psychiatric condition that develops in some people following a traumatic or stressful experience, such as violence or loss of a loved one. PTSD can also develop in people who witness a traumatic event, or people who hear about the trauma secondhand. For people who suffer from PTSD, the distress following a traumatic event can last for years, and extreme symptoms and emotions can be brought on or worsened by triggers that remind a person of their trauma.

PTSD triggers can vary depending on the type of trauma experienced and can be directly related to the trauma, or something seemingly unrelated. Examples of PTSD triggers can include people related to the traumatic event, specific objects, sounds or places. For people who know their triggers, they may go to great lengths to avoid them or become on edge or avoidant if they fear they may encounter these triggers. PTSD triggers can be common in war veterans, people with substance use disorders or those exposed to stressful environments.

How Do Triggers Develop?

PTSD triggers are developed before or during a traumatic event, and often include small moments or feelings that occurred leading up to the event. For example, someone may hear footsteps or smell smoke leading up to a traumatic experience. The brain then associates a trigger with upcoming threat or danger; the smell, person or feeling then serves as a warning signal.

Even if a trigger is not at all related to a traumatic event, the brain can create an association between the two. This association can cause a person to re-experience their trauma if they encounter that trigger. These experiences are extreme, emotional and can be anxiety-inducing and debilitating.

Reactions to triggers can develop in many different ways. For example, triggers may cause:

  • Dreams or vivid memories of the traumatic experience
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Aggression or violence
  • Extreme sadness
  • A heightened startle response, or seeming”‘jumpy”
  • A need to “numb the pain” of the trauma through substance use

Different Types of Triggers

PTSD triggers depend on the sights, sounds or people that are around a person leading up to or during a traumatic event. Although many people are acutely aware of what triggers them, some people — particularly if they have sensory triggers —  may not be sure what causes them to relive their experience. Triggers are associated with an extreme fear response and can include:

  • People: People who were near an event that was traumatic, or were perpetrators of trauma can evoke distress
  • Places: People with PTSD might relive their trauma by revisiting places that are linked to a traumatic event
  • Feelings: Particular feelings, like worry, panic or stress, can remind a person of how they felt during a traumatic experience and cause them to relive their experience
  • Things: Certain objects that were present or implicated in a traumatic experience can trigger an emotional response related to PTSD. This could be a piece of clothing, a type of vehicle, or anything that held significance or was notable leading up to or during the trauma.
  • Scents: A certain smell, like smoke or a particular aftershave, can also evoke traumatic memories. Scents are thought to have a stronger connection to memory than some of the other senses and may be linked with an extreme reaction if triggered.
  • Sounds: Sounds that are the same or similar to a sound that was part of a traumatic event can be extremely triggering. Sound-based triggers are particularly common among war veterans or victims of violent crime.
  • Anniversaries: Knowing the anniversary or significant dates surrounding a traumatic event can be anxiety-inducing for people with PTSD. The awareness of a significant date can bring on thoughts, feelings and memories related to trauma.

Identifying and Recognizing PTSD Triggers

Identifying PTSD triggers is not always obvious; someone with PTSD might not be aware of what sets them off or provokes their feelings of fear or anger. This is particularly true with sensory triggers like smells, colors, tastes or touch. Recognizing triggers may require a combination of talk therapy, or observation by a psychiatrist to examine parts of the environment that provoke an emotional response.

Recognizing PTSD triggers when they occur can be different for different people. While some people may be fearful or avoidant, others may be angry, aggressive or panicked. While some people may be able to recognize these behaviors in themselves, others may not. In these cases, healthcare professionals and family and friends may be needed to help to identify triggers.

Coping With PTSD Triggers

Although avoiding triggers may seem like a logical way to avoid reliving trauma, it’s unlikely to help with symptoms of PTSD in the long term. Quite the contrary, exposure to triggers is the most common and effective treatment for PTSD. This can help to remove a trigger from the traumatic context and place it in the present, where it doesn’t hold any value or association.

People can also cope with PTSD triggers through peer support groups, mindfulness and relaxation strategies or the assistance of an emotional support animal. In many cases, a combination of personal coping strategies and exposure therapy supported by a psychiatrist can be beneficial.

Some of the treatment options for managing PTSD triggers include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Prolonged exposure therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Medication
  • Family therapy

Dealing with PTSD triggers can be challenging. If you or someone you care about is struggling with PTSD and is trying to cope by misusing substances, contact The Recovery Village today to discuss treatment options for PTSD and co-occurring addiction.

Related Topic: PTSD self treatment

a woman with long brown hair smiling at the camera.
Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
a woman standing in front of a clock on a building.
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Sarah Dash, PHD
Dr. Sarah Dash is a postdoctoral research fellow based in Toronto. Sarah completed her PhD in Nutritional Psychiatry at the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in 2017. Read more

Killeen, Theresa K.; Back, Sudie E.; Brady, Kathleen T. “The Use of Exposure-Based Treatment Amon[…]nical Considerations.” Journal of dual diagnosis, November 10, 2011. Accessed May 29, 2019.

Ehlers, Anke. “Understanding and Treating Unwanted Trau[…]atic Stress Disorder.” Zeitschrift für Psychologie / Journal of Psychology, 2010. Accessed May 29, 2019.

Zoladz, Phillip R.; Diamond, David M. “Current status on behavioral and biological markers of PTSD: A search for clarity in a conflicting literature.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2019.

Koenen, Karestan C. “Developmental epidemiology of PTSD: self[…] a central mechanism.” Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2006. Accessed May 29, 2019.

Ehlers, Anke; Clark, David M.  “Intensive Cognitive Therapy for PTSD: A Feasibility Study.” Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 2010. Accessed May 29, 2019.

Rauch, Sheila A.; Eftekhari, Afsoon; Ruzek, Joseph I.. “Review of exposure therapy: a gold standard for PTSD treatment.” J Rehabil Res Dev, 2012. Accessed May 29, 2019.

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. “Treatment of PTSD.” 2010. Accessed May 29, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.