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What Are Triggers?

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:






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: To learn about how to cope with triggers, check out this article: How to cope with triggers

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