PTSD can manifest itself in many ways, and can catch you by surprise. A trigger occurs when something sets off a memory or a flashback of the traumatic event, causing an overwhelming emotional and physical reaction that you may be unable to predict. The intensity of the reaction can even match the level felt at the time of trauma.
Triggers can be surprising and often confusing because in that moment, the brain reacts in the same way it did during the assault, and so evokes the same response even when there is no immediate threat. On the other hand, triggers can be obvious like unwanted physical contact or witnessing assault.
They are overwhelming and can leave people feeling re-traumatized. Because triggers are often deeply associated with the senses, commonplace circumstances like seeing the color blue or smelling a rose, can evoke an emotional reaction. This is because the brain associates these senses with the traumatic incident.
Triggers cause survivors of sexualized violence (or any kind of trauma) to feel or behave in the same way they did during or immediately after the traumatic event because the brain does not differentiate what happened then from what is going on around them now. It is also possible that survivors do not realize that they have experienced a trigger and as a result, can be confused about their feelings or behavior.
Symptoms of Trauma Triggers
- Sudden or unexplained bouts of crying
- Fear / paranoia / anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Sudden physical symptoms such as nausea or fatigue
- Irritability, intrusive thoughts, being easily startled, hyper-vigilance or other signs that your mind is on alert for trouble/danger
- Display of unhealthy coping mechanisms used during or after the attack(s)
Although triggers are different for everyone, they are often associated with a person’s senses. Seemingly harmless things, like the smell of a particular flower, could trigger an emotional reaction for a person whose brain has associated that thing with a traumatic experience. The following are some examples of sense-based triggers:
- Often someone who resembles the abuser or who has similar traits or objects (i.e. clothing, hair color, distinctive walk)
- Any situation where someone else is being abused (i.e. anything from a raised eyebrow and verbal comment to actual physical abuse)
- The object that was used to abuse
- The objects that are associated with or were common in the household where the abuse took place (i.e. alcohol, piece of furniture, time of year)
- Any place or situation where the abuse took place (i.e. specific locations in a house, holidays, family events, social settings). This can sometimes even go as far as locations like the lake where the abuse or incident occurred, or entire cities or countries depending on intensity and duration of abuse (i.e. experiencing childhood sexual abuse, then going to court/trial, media coverage)
- Anything that sounds like anger (i.e. raised voices, arguments, bangs and thumps, something breaking)
- Anything that sounds like pain or fear (i.e. crying, whispering, screaming)
- Anything that might have been in the place or situation prior to, during, or after the abuse or reminds her/him of the abuse (i.e. sirens, foghorns, music, cricket chirping, car door closing)
- Anything that resembles sounds that the abuser made (i.e. whistling, footsteps, pop of can opening, tone of voice), accents or spoken language
- Words of abuse (i.e. cursing, labels, put-downs, specific words used)
- Pet names or whispered words the abuser used
- Anything that resembles the smell of the abuser (i.e. tobacco, alcohol, drugs, after shave, perfume)
- Any smells that resemble the place or situation where the abuse occurred (i.e. food cooking, wood, alcohol)
- Any type of touch or action that resembles the abuse or things that occurred prior to or after the abuse (i.e. certain physical touch, someone standing too close, petting an animal, the way someone approaches you)
- Tastes that were experienced during the abuse, prior to the abuse or after the abuse (i.e. certain foods, alcohol, tobacco)
Triggers vary from person to person, and in intensity. They can be activated by sight, smell, touch, sound or smell. Sometimes, you can feel anxiety even when you don’t know what triggered it. As a result, it is important to learn to identify triggers through external support like counseling, so you are able to understand them, manage them, and eventually overcome them. Learn more about what triggers are here: https://ssaic.ca/learn/triggers-what-are-they/. To learn about how to cope with triggers, check out this article: How to cope with triggers