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What Happens When PTSD Is Triggered?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that one may develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, such as a natural disaster, serious accident, combat, or assault.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 1 in 11 Americans will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lifetime.

When exposed to a PTSD trigger, some people may re-experience the original trauma, including emotional and physical sensations associated with it. Some people may only experience mild symptoms when exposed to a trigger, while others may have severe symptoms that hinder their daily functioning.

What are PTSD Triggers?

A PTSD trigger is anything—a person, place, thing, or situation—that reminds you of your traumatic experience. PTSD triggers can be internal (flashbacks, visions, nightmares, intrusive thoughts) or external (sights, sounds, weather, smells, touch, or anything else in the environment).

Some triggers may be easy to predict. For instance, a war veteran or someone who has lived in a warzone may get alarmed or jumpy from loud noises such as a car backfiring or fireworks. However, other triggers may be less obvious and often catch you off guard. For example, someone with PTSD may feel overwhelmed with fear if a stranger accidentally bumps into them.

What PTSD Triggers Can Do To a Person

When a person with PTSD is exposed to a trigger, it can set off a chain reaction that originates in the brain. To begin with, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls fear and other emotions, becomes overactive. This causes a person to experience excessive fear even when no actual threat exists.

The hippocampus, which is responsible for forming new memories and linking them to existing ones, may also go into overdrive, causing a person to re-experience the traumatic event over and over again in their brains through vivid memories, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts.

The body’s stress response system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, also kicks into high gear. This can lead to physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, hot flushes, and nausea. Some people may even experience a full-blown panic attack.

Besides the physical and emotional reactions, a person with PTSD may also experience behavioral changes. They may become withdrawn, avoid people or places that trigger their PTSD, or use drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings.

How to Cope With PTSD Triggers

PTSD triggers are often unpredictable and may appear out of the blue. When they do, having a coping mechanism can help you get through the physical and emotional distress that may follow. Below are some tips on how to deal with PTSD triggers:

Practice Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises can help slow down your breathing and effectively calm the body and mind when you’re feeling jumpy or on edge. 

Find Positive Distractions

Doing something you enjoy can help take your mind off the trigger and the negative emotions associated with it. Listening to music, spending time with friends or family, reading a book, playing with a pet, or watching a funny movie are all great examples of positive distractions.

Get Moving

Physical activity can also be helpful in managing PTSD triggers. Exercise releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting and stress-relieving effects. 

Walking, running, biking, swimming, or any other form of exercise can help you feel better and cope with a trigger. Physical activities may also act as a distraction.

Visualization

Visualization is another powerful technique that can help calm the mind and body. It involves using your imagination to create peaceful and soothing images in your mind, such as a beach or a meadow. 

The Bottom Line

PTSD triggers are often unpredictable and can profoundly impact your life. If you struggle to manage your triggers, a mental health professional can help you overcome your fears or learn healthy coping techniques.

 

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