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Recognizing Triggers of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

seaman stands starboard aft lookout watch aboard the aircraft carrier

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joe Boggio

After an experience like war, a car accident, an assault or other traumatic event, you may have reactions that can be difficult to cope with. Most people recover from initial symptoms naturally, but depending on the severity and duration of your symptoms you may be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Not everyone who experiences a trauma will develop PTSD. However, estimates suggest about three percent of active duty service members are living with PTSD. Among veterans, estimates vary widely. Recent studies show that more than 13 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan screened positive for PTSD. Other studies estimate as many as 20-30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggle with PTSD. Veterans from wars past are also affected.

For those who are coping with PTSD symptoms, certain triggers of a traumatic event may bring back memories. Reminders of traumatic events can produce immediate and strong symptoms including:

  • Feelings of fear, panic or anxiety
  • Avoidance
  • Hypervigilance
  • Heightened startle reaction
  • A racing heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks

These reactions can make it hard to work and carry out routine tasks. Fortunately, there is help. A health care provider provides helpful information about PTSD treatment options that include ways to cope with triggers.

Triggers of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Triggers are usually tied to the circumstances of a specific traumatic event.

Some triggers seem obvious. Fireworks, for example, can be troubling to some service members who have experienced combat. Other triggers may be less obvious, but may still be distressing. Subtle textures or smells may remind you of a traumatic event. For example, sand may be a trigger for someone who has deployed to a desert environment and is coping with PTSD.

Anything can be a trigger, but a few common ones include:

  • Sounds: Fire alarms, loud aircraft, yelling or crying
  • Smells/tastes: Burnt rubber, fragrant foods, fuel, cologne or perfume
  • People: Large crowds, foreign languages, styles of clothing
  • Places: Enclosed spaces, hospitals, markets or malls
  • Circumstances: Event anniversaries, fighting or arguing, an injured or bleeding person, driving or flying

If these or other circumstances cause you or someone you know to feel distressed, it is important to reach out to a health care provider for help.

Self-help When Facing PTSD Triggers

Sometimes you or someone you know may encounter a trigger between visits with a health care provider. The following tips can help you cope:

For feelings of fear, anxiety or panic:

  • Slow your breathing.
  • Know reactions like a pounding heart aren't dangerous and will pass.
  • Remind yourself that if these reactions occured while exercising they would not worry you.

For distressing memories, images, or thoughts:

  • Remind yourself they are just memories.
  • Remind yourself of where you are and that you are safe.
  • Ground yourself in the present by paying attention to your surroundings.
  • Get a drink of water and wash your hands.
  • Talk to someone you trust.

No matter how difficult it may seem, reaching out is a sign of strength and treatment helps. A health care provider can help you manage PTSD triggers and figure out ways to cope.

If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants. Call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also visit our "Seek Help, Find Care" page to see a list of key psychological health resources.

Additional Resources

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