Fireworks are a common trigger, but the list doesn’t stop there.
The past few years has witnessed an emergence of trigger into casual conversation. Increasingly, the word appears on social media, often ironically, or to mock people who are overreacting to silly things, such as Starbucks ditching their favorite drink.
It’s important to remember, then, that trigger is a real and serious phenomenon. Triggers can have very distressing effects on an individual’s life, and it is a core component of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“Trigger for PTSD is anything that is reminding the individual of their traumatic experience, and oftentimes, these reminders can lead to intense physical sensations and psychological mode states,” says Amanda M. Spray, PhD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health.
When someone with PTSD experiences a trigger, they may relive the traumatic experience. Consequently, they may develop poor coping strategies, like heavy drinking or avoidant behaviors that limit their lifestyle.
Unique Triggers for Veterans
Triggers can vary for people with PTSD based on what their traumatic experience was. Someone who has PTSD from a sexual assault is going to have different triggers than someone who has PTSD from combat.
One common trigger that is unique to veterans is the fear of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. In combat, benign objects like cell phones or trash bags may actually be a bomb. “When someone comes back [to civilian life], they may be reminded of those seemingly benign materials that had been made into explosive devices,” says Dr. Spray.
In response to these everyday objects, the veteran “may experience symptoms of increased reactivity, hypervigilance, [or] being very worried. It could even trigger a fight-or-flight response in that situation,” says Dr. Spray.
Other common triggers for veterans include large crowds, tight spaces, fireworks, media coverage of war, or even veteran gatherings or events.
How Triggers Affect Veterans’ Lives
Triggers can have such a negative effect on someone’s life that the intuitive reaction is to avoid them at all costs. They may shy away from social events, limit their outings, avoid certain areas, and make other life-altering restrictions. Learn more symptoms of PTSD in veterans here.
“While that seems to make sense initially … what ends up happening is that avoidance leads to someone's life becoming very, very small,” says Dr. Spray. “That actually really contributes to the development of PTSD.”
An essential component in treatment for PTSD is safely confronting your triggers. There are three key types of psychotherapy recommended for people with PTSD:
- Prolonged exposure therapy, which helps you safely face the distress you feel in response to triggers
- Cognitive processing therapy, which helps you reframe negative thoughts about your traumatic experience
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which helps you make meaning from your trauma
If you think you have PTSD and triggers are limiting your life, talk to a doctor or mental health care professional. They can help you get the care you need to live your best life. Find out what to expect at your first therapy session here.
Amanda M. Spray, PhD, is a psychologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City and a clinical associate professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
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(gentle piano music)
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So a trigger for PTSD is anything that is reminding
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the individual of their traumatic experience,
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and oftentimes, these reminders can lead to intense
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physical sensations and psychological mood states.
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(gentle piano music)
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So often when a veteran returns from combat
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or begins to reintegrate into civilian life,
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they can have many reminders of traumatic situations,
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and so improvised explosive devices, IEDs,
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oftentimes look like benign materials
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in the combat theater.
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And so when someone comes back,
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they may be reminded of those seemingly
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benign materials that had been made into
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So for example, we hear a lot of garbage cans
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or garbage bags on the side of the road.
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That's very common and can be a reminder
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of traumatic situations.
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And so those, while we might think,
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oh that's a benign piece of garbage,
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to a veteran, where that type of object
was not a threat,
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they may experience symptoms of
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hypervigilance, being very worried.
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It could even trigger a fight-or-flight response
in that situation.
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It wasn't immediate.
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It was a sort of slow build over the years.
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Nightmares were sort of the first thing,
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trouble and anxiety in crowds,
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fireworks, I can't handle being around fireworks at all.
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So triggers can be very challenging for veterans
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to overcome, and sometimes what individuals do
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is they start to avoid anything that could possibly be
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a trigger for them, and while that seems
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to make sense initially,
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and seems like that would be very helpful,
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what ends up happening is that avoidance leads
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to someone's life becoming very, very small.
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Suddenly, I can't walk outside of my apartment
on trash day.
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Suddenly, I can't get on the subway
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or I can't travel when I'm going to maybe
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be in traffic because it feels claustrophobic
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and that may remind me of my traumatic situation.
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And so even though it seems quite intuitive,
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that, okay, just avoid all of the triggers
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that you may experience in your everyday life,
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that actually really contributes to the development
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So what we suggest in mental health is to, instead,
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get assistance, get treatment,
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and treatment will help you to safely confront
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the experiences, people, places, things,
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that might have previously been triggers for you
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in order to make them no longer triggers for you.
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