The Emotional and Physical Triggers of PTSD

Daily life involves contending with a lot of emotions. The annoyance caused by our alarm clock, the elation of that first sip of coffee, the anger caused by traffic, or the joy of clocking out of work can all affect our mood whether we are anticipating them to or not.

When the emotions of the day overwhelm us and illicit a physical or emotional response we can’t ignore, we often call this episode a “trigger”. Triggers are just what they sound like, a moment of emotional and physical distress caused by a previous emotional experience or trauma.

Those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience triggers as intrusive memories. These sorts of PTSD triggers are referred to as recurrent and require consistent treatment. Reliving unwanted or distressing memories are common responses as well.

The unfortunate reality is that a trigger can come from a wide variety of sources. Often sights, sounds, or even smells associated with the inciting experience can trigger these memories. The process of understanding our triggers and learning to watch for their warning signs is an important part of the successful continual treatment of PTSD.

PTSD’s Physical Responses

Often, we ignore the physical symptoms of trauma in favor of watching for the emotional responses instead. But many physical symptoms associated with anxiety or PTSD can surface when we encounter a traumatic memory or experience. Some of these symptoms include:

  • An overwhelming dizziness or spinning sensation.
  • Sweaty palms or shaky hands.
  • A quickened heart rate.
  • An upset stomach, leading to eventual nausea.

It’s good to think about these physical symptoms as warning signs that something around you may be triggering a past traumatic event. Living with PTSD often makes us quite aware of any emotional stressors in our lives, but often we can still miss what our body is physically trying to tell us.

Emotional Stress and PTSD

When something does eventually trigger our emotional state, the symptoms can be wide and varied as they often stem from the current inciting incident. The event that triggers us doesn’t always have to correlate directly to our trauma either. A stressful or intense situation can sometimes be enough if we’re not paying attention to our mental health at the time.

Understanding what sort of situations can compromise us mentally is a good stepping stone to identifying our triggers and learning how to live with them through therapy and treatment. When distinguishing potential triggers, the following inciting incidents and emotions are good to keep in mind:

  • Being Ignored or Forgotten
  • Harsh Rejection
  • Betrayal or Broken Trust
  • Unfair Situations
  • Loss of Agency and Control
  • Disapproval or Unwanted Criticism
  • Getting Emotionally Overwhelmed
  • Mounting Insecurities

While none of these emotions or situations may be the origin of your trauma, this does not mean that they cannot trigger emotional episodes. Even if they do not connect directly to the initial experiences, they still may be a contributing factor to emotional distress. Therapy and treatment can often make it easier to identify why these situations are potential triggers if we can’t see the correlation at first. Working through potential responses and figuring out how best to handle a triggering event is an important part of the treatment process. The more we understand ourselves, the better we are able to react to the world around us.

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