People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have symptoms that come and go. Just when they begin to feel better, the smell of smoke or a loud firework causes them to reenter fight-or-flight mode. Unfortunately, most people with PTSD will experience these triggers and flashbacks.

To understand how these PTSD triggers work, let’s take a look at how this condition causes them. 


What Is PTSD?

Everyone experiences trauma at some point in life. Some people process trauma in the moment without thinking about it later. Others process trauma after the event, requiring additional time to work through the traumatic experience. During this time, they may have low energy, confusion, or even irritation.

People who are constantly afraid of the situation happening again may avoid things that remind them of it, including locations or speaking about certain subjects, to avoid rehashing their feelings of fear and helplessness.

When this avoidance behavior continues for more than a month, in addition to the following symptoms, the person is suspected of having post-traumatic stress disorder:

  • Nightmares
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Feeling worried
  • Being hyper-vigilant
  • Being easily startled
  • Losing interest in activities

People with post-traumatic stress disorder may also experience flashbacks as a result of PTSD triggers.


What Is a PTSD Trigger?

When you experience a trauma or dangerous situation, your body enters survival mode, also referred to as fight, flight, or freeze. In this state, your heart races, and you become hyper-aware of your surroundings. You’ll also find it difficult to process thoughts as your brain works overtime, attaching sensory information such as sights and sounds. These details help you determine if you should run, stay still, or panic. If you need to run, this information will help you determine the safest path to exit the situation.

Unfortunately, in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, these sights, scents, and sounds become PTSD triggers, causing a person to feel stressed and anxious even when they are safe.


How Do PTSD Triggers Cause Flashbacks?

PTSD triggers act as sensors, alerting the mind to a perceived threat or impending danger. A firework or the smell of cologne could bring back memories of combat or a car crash without warning, causing the person to re-experience the fight, flight or freeze reaction. This is called a flashback.

Some people have flashbacks but aren’t aware that they’re having them. They believe they’re feeling anxious for no apparent reason. Other people have vivid flashbacks and believe that they have reentered the traumatic memory.


Who Experiences PTSD Triggers? 

Anyone who has lived through a traumatic experience or heard about one can experience PTSD triggers. The more traumatic the event, the more intense their reaction will be to a PTSD trigger. 

These triggers often prompt the person to isolate themselves from others or use substances like alcohol or drugs to cope. Unfortunately, this puts people with PTSD at a higher risk of developing substance use disorders or addiction than the general population.

Sometimes PTSD triggers go away on their own, becoming duller over time as your mind realizes that it’s not in a situation where a fight, flight, or freeze response is necessary. Other times, people consistently experience PTSD triggers and engage in avoidance behaviors to stop them.

This behavioral response could lead to phobias like a fear of open spaces, closed spaces, or loud sounds. Other people may develop additional mental health issues such as anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or major depressive disorder.


How to Cope With PTSD Triggers and Flashbacks?

The best way to deal with PTSD triggers and flashbacks is to talk to someone about them. Talking with a trusted friend or loved one can be enough to regain a sense of normalcy while reducing anxious feelings related to the trauma.

If you can’t bring yourself to speak about the trauma for fear of having a flashback or suffering from worsening anxiety, behavioral therapy can help.

Behavior therapy provides coping strategies such as self-regulation and Socratic questioning to overcome stressors. 

People in behavioral therapy also learn ways to:

  • Question their behavior
  • Identify what’s causing the behavior
  • Identify inaccurate thought patterns
  • Reevaluate their thoughts

The most common forms of behavioral therapy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder are cognitive-behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.


Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

In short, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people recognize and understand their current behavior, including PTSD triggers. CBT therapists work with patients to develop a renewed sense of confidence while teaching them coping skills to desensitize negative emotions.

Overall, cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches a person that they can change the way they feel, behave, or believe by applying strategies to overcome negative thinking.


 Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

Another form of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder is eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing therapy. This form of psychotherapy is based on the cognitive-behavioral therapy model but includes bilateral stimulation to reduce reactions to a specific stressor.

Bilateral stimulation is the main component of EMDR therapy. It involves activating both sides of the brain through rhythmic eye movements while focusing on the traumatic event. With time and practice, this form of therapy helps you process the memory without reacting to it.


Help for PTSD Triggers and Flashbacks

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a difficult condition to treat without professional help. While there are multiple techniques one can use to reduce symptoms and improve the way one feels about the trauma, therapy remains the standard treatment for overcoming PTSD triggers and flashbacks. 

The above-listed therapies are a few of the many therapeutic approaches available for PTSD treatment

To learn more about treatment options and begin your journey to PTSD healing, contact Transformations Mending Fences today.

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  2. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Trauma Reminders: Triggers
  3. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Education and Human Sciences. Self-Regulation