After witnessing a traumatic experience, some people have difficulty going back to life as usual. They might feel anxious and have trouble confiding in someone about how they feel. This leads to isolation and depression, amongst other worrying symptoms.

In some cases, the person will experience flashbacks to the traumatic event as a result of a PTSD trigger. 

In this blog, we’ll go over post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggers, how they develop, and why they cause flashbacks. 

What Is a PTSD Trigger?

Trauma takes over all your senses and causes you to enter a state of fight, flight, or freeze. In this anxious state, your brain records details of the experience, making sure to capture how you feel amongst an array of sensory details. These details include the aroma of your perfume, the food you ate before the event, and even a song playing when it happened. All of these details become small reminders of the traumatic event. However, for people with PTSD, they become triggers.

PTSD triggers work as activators, causing your brain and body to reenter survival mode. Some people have many triggers; others have a few. 

The most common PTSD triggers are:

  • People present during the trauma
  • People with specific physical traits
  • Specific emotions
  • Specific objects 
  • Specific locations or buildings
  • Strong aromas, like the smell of smoke or gasoline
  • Darkness
  • Small confined spaces
  • Certain TV shows or movies
  • News reports
  • Pain in a specific area of the body
  • Touching a certain part of the body
  • Specific noises or songs
  • The taste of alcohol

There are many other PTSD triggers not listed here, as they are very specific to each person and their experience. However, one commonality shared across the board is that people with PTSD triggers often experience flashbacks.

What Is a PTSD Flashback, and How Does One Occur?

A flashback is the re-experiencing of a traumatic event triggered by certain stimuli. In this case, the stimulus is a PTSD trigger.

During the traumatic event, your brain is flooded with a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for allowing us to fight, run away, or play dead. When this occurs, your brain’s frontal lobe and cerebellum lose communication to stop you from thinking about anything but survival. However, this doesn’t stop the brain from recording the event, including details that will later become PTSD triggers.

Unfortunately, this cortisol dump becomes part of the memory, so each time the memory comes up, you may re-experience the same cortisol reaction. This response is called a PTSD flashback. Often, PTSD flashbacks are prompted by encountering a PTSD trigger.

When a person experiences a PTSD flashback, they may not revisit the event in their mind but simply re-experience the negative emotions tied to it. Others become dissociative, losing awareness of everything in the present moment and entering a daydream-type state where they see the traumatic event all over again.

Does Everyone With PTSD Have Triggers or Flashbacks?

For reasons unknown, PTSD sufferers experience triggers in different ways. Some experience mild, uncomfortable symptoms, and others experience them more intensely. Still, others experience terrifying flashbacks and a sense of impending doom.

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict who will experience flashbacks from their triggers and who will not.

There are risk factors, however, that result in a greater likelihood of experiencing flashbacks.

They include:

  • People with previously diagnosed anxiety or depression
  • People with substance misuse problems
  • People who survived a terrorist attack
  • People who engaged in combat
  • People who were resuscitated after a life-altering trauma
  • People with diagnosed mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or dissociative personality disorder

Is There a Way to Overcome PTSD Triggers?

While there isn’t a way to remove sensory information from traumatic memories, there is a way to remove their traumatic context. One such method is exposure therapy

Exposure Therapy is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that exposes the sufferer to their anxiety source and triggers using science-backed techniques in a safe and controlled environment. This helps to break the pattern of avoidance and reduce their reaction to PTSD triggers.

Additional evidence-based treatments for treating PTSD and PTSD triggers include:

In some cases, PTSD triggers are so pronounced that it impacts a person’s overall well-being. In these cases, they may be prescribed medications instead of or in addition to therapy.

According to the National Center for PTSD, the most prescribed medications include:

  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Effexor (venlafaxine

Moving Beyond PTSD Triggers and Flashbacks

PTSD triggers and flashbacks are part and parcel of the condition. While you might go to great lengths to distance yourself from these triggers, ignoring them often causes them to get worse.

To move past the trauma and get relief from PTSD triggers, it helps to talk to a mental health treatment provider about them. If talking to your loved ones isn’t something you can do, speak to a licensed professional who can help. Therapy will provide the tools necessary to help you move past the trauma and regain balance in your life. 

If you’re ready to begin your journey to healing, contact Transformations Treatment Center today. We’re here to help.

  1. Medline Plus. Port-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Trauma Reminders: Triggers
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Medications