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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Trauma Reminders: Triggers


Trauma Reminders: Triggers

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After you experience a traumatic event, many things might remind you of it. Places, people, sounds or smells could "trigger" a memory of the event. Learn what research shows about trauma triggers and how you can cope with them.

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People respond to traumatic events in a number of ways. They may feel concern, anger, fear, or helplessness. These are all typical responses to a violent, malicious, or traumatic event. However, research shows that people who have been through trauma, loss, or hardship in the past may be even more likely than others to be affected by new, potentially traumatic events.

Photo of Robert Tucker

“Here a bag of trash is usually a bag of trash. Over there, who knows what's inside of it.”

Robert Tucker

U.S. Army

Traumatic events can cause a range of reactions. In response to new traumatic events, Veterans may:

  • Have general distress or see an increase in their PTSD symptoms
  • Become quick to anger, sleep poorly, or drink more heavily
  • Try to avoid all reminders or media about the incident, or shy away from social situations in general

Recent traumatic events may also trigger old memories among Veterans. When facing a new traumatic event some Veterans expect and/or prepare for the worst based on their past experiences.

For example, Veterans may:

  • Become overly protective, vigilant, and guarded
  • Become preoccupied by danger
  • Feel a need to avoid being shocked by, or unprepared for, what may happen in the future

Research Findings

Research has looked at how Veterans react to terrorism. While some studies report that Veterans react similarly to civilians when acts of mass violence occur, other studies report that their negative reactions may last for a longer length of time than civilians. Some Veterans reported that they had more frequent:

  • Military and homecoming memories
  • Depressed mood
  • General distress
  • PTSD symptoms

Veterans with PTSD may be even more likely to see their PTSD symptoms get worse if they are exposed to reminders that are similar to their experiences in the military. For example:

  • When Veterans followed news closely they reported that media coverage of war brought back thoughts and feelings of their own military experiences.
  • Recent research found that individuals who repeatedly exposed themselves to disturbing images from television reports were at greater risk of developing PTSD over the next two to three years.
  • When PTSD symptoms got worse for some Veterans, it may have been related to how closely what they were seeing on the news reflected what they had gone through while serving.
  • Veteran gatherings or American symbols with high emotional value also could cause PTSD symptoms to recur or worsen.

How Can Veterans Cope When Current Events Cause Distress?

Below is a list of tips to manage distress for Veterans with or without PTSD. Use them to help you cope when traumatic events affect you.

To help yourself

  • Consider limiting your exposure to news on television. While media coverage may draw you in, increased viewing can raise stress levels. Watch yourself for signs of anger, rage, depression, worry, or other negative feelings. Take a time out from the news to let yourself recover from these feelings.
  • Keep up with daily schedules and routines. Try to include more pleasant activities in your day, even for brief periods of time.
  • Keep up with your body's needs for exercise, food, and sleep.
  • Feel what you feel. It is normal to feel a range of emotions. Having these feelings is to be expected. How you deal with them is most important.
  • Slow down. Give yourself time and space to deal with what has happened. Remember that people have their own pace for dealing with trauma, including you.
  • Count on feeling angry, but balance your actions with wisdom. Try to stay calm. Avoid reacting with sudden anger toward any group or persons.
  • Talk with someone close to you who might understand what you are going through.
  • If you do not feel like talking, writing in a journal may be helpful for dealing with intense feelings.
  • Do not avoid other Veterans even if they remind you of your military past. Seeking support along with other Veterans can be very helpful when stress is high. You can find other Veterans through the VA, Vet Centers, and Veteran's Service Organizations.

If you need help

Get help from your doctor or a mental health provider who is skilled in working with survivors of trauma if:

  • You are having any symptoms that are causing high levels of distress, problems in relationships, or problems at work.
  • You are abusing alcohol or drugs.
  • You cannot get relief using the tips listed above.

To help children in your life

If children hear about acts of violence, they look to adults to help them understand and cope with their feelings. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Try to respond when they ask questions.
  • Safety is a main concern for them. Comfort them and tell them in an age-appropriate way that adults are working hard to help those involved in the situation, and to make sure children will be safe everywhere.
  • Be a positive role model for them.
  • Show them how you have ways to deal with difficult events together as a family.

To help your community

  • Avoid blame as much as possible. Anger and blame toward others have been shown to increase Veterans' stress symptoms.
  • Try to change anger or thoughts of revenge into something positive. You could donate blood, give money to the Red Cross, volunteer, donate to a food bank, or give your support in some other way. Invite others to do the same.
  • Try to join together with others, show patience, and help others in times of hardship.

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PTSD Information Voice Mail: (802) 296-6300
Also see: VA Mental Health