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How to Deal With Trauma Triggers

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/13/2022

Anyone who’s experienced trauma — or anyone who knows someone touched by trauma — understands how profound an impact it can leave on one’s life.

While there are a number of tools to assist someone coping with the after effects of trauma, the emotional impact of trauma can be complex.

In this article, we want to focus on the impact of trauma — specifically, its triggers and how to deal with them.

So, let’s get to work — together.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is the body and mind’s response to a dramatic, shocking event — usually a terrible one.

Trauma can leave a lasting impact on the body and mind. Further, trauma’s impact can take days — or even years, in some cases — to rear its peculiar, and at times ugly head.

It can be stirred up by triggers — forms of stimulation that spark the memory of a traumatic event — in many ways. Some triggers are more or less subtle than others, and can sometimes be difficult to locate and understand.

If you were in a nearly fatal car accident, the simple act of getting into a car may be a potential trigger. If you escaped an abusive relationship, having even a minor disagreement with future partners may be a trigger. They come in all shapes and sizes.

The good news is that once you identify these types of triggers, finding targeted approaches to coping with them becomes easier. 

If Triggered, How Can We Cope With Trauma?

If one has experienced a traumatic event, it can be difficult to clue into the trauma — or to admit the trauma exists at all.

One of the first big steps in dealing with trauma is by simply recognizing that a traumatic episode has happened.

After recognition of the traumatic episode, it’s critical to recognize and cope with the aftershocks of the traumatic event. 

Part of clueing into trauma’s aftershocks and impact is recognizing when and how one is triggered into remembering — physically, emotionally or both — the traumatic memory. 

Resilience

First, it’s important to work on developing a resilient response to trauma.

A resilient response to trauma is a reinforcement of the values, communities and relationships that supplied strength to your well-being before incurring trauma.

Here are a few ways resilience can be taught and/or reinforced to the benefit of someone who’s been traumatized:

  • Increase time with family or community.

  • Create a sense of purpose or meaning within your life, so as to minimize the impact trauma can potentially have over your life.

  • Understand that healing is a personal mission and, therefore, something to take seriously as a form of self-care.

  • Reevaluate and, if necessary, amend your life’s priorities so as to give yourself the kindness and purpose you need to live a life of meaning.

  • Volunteer and increase your charitable giving. Serving others can be a powerful, recuperative and restorative tool.

Avoiding Harmful Substances

People who have a penchant for alcohol or drug use should look elsewhere after experiencing a traumatic event.

This insight is based on research and analysis from a 2001 case study that looked into the substance use of New York City residents after the events on September 11, 2001and whether or not it had an effect on peoples’ abilities to cope.

The research found there was an increase in substance use after the attacks in response to the trauma of the attacks.

While a response to such an episode is completely understandable — after all, when your defenses are down, who’s to say how you’ll react after something so profound? — it’s also something to be avoided if you want to care for your long-term health.

Do Not Avoid 

Avoidance is typically associated with distress, despair or impairment. 

In the case of trauma, avoidance is associated with a traumatic trigger that makes someone want to avoid a potentially dangerous, scary or life-threatening situation.

Specifically, the person erring on the side of avoiding is hypervigilant and, even though they may be walking into a perfectly safe situation, they may nevertheless fear the worst possible outcome.

As a result, they avoid at all costs — people, places, events.

While avoidance may seem to work in the short term, the long-term costs of avoidance can be substantial.

Avoidance can lead to greater social isolation, increasing one’s loneliness and detaching them from the networks, communities and loving relationships vital to their well-being.

Build Your Network

We’ve all heard the saying no man is an island. When it comes to coping with trauma, this saying rings truer than ever.

If you notice that you’re experiencing trauma and traumatic triggers, we’d encourage you to get out there and build a social and community support system that nourishes and uplifts you.

In fact, research shows that community work actually works to prevent trauma!

In the aftermath of a traumatic episode, survivors can feel like the order of their world has been shaken, and it can feel unfair for them to suffer as a result of that episode.

Plugging into a network of folks who can empathize and provide support there can be super valuable.

Deep Breaths

Yes, even taking a second to ground yourself, take a few deep breaths and level yourself can be an excellent preventative tool when confronted with a traumatic trigger.

What Builds Trauma’s Groundwork?

Trauma is about context and nuance. Honestly, just about anything can be traumatic to one extent or another, depending on the context in which you experience it.

Further, trauma may manifest in both physical and emotional ways. And at times, these manifestations may be difficult to connect to the moment (or moments) in which you originally experienced the initial trauma.

First, however, it’s important to understand the first step in this puzzle: what lays the groundwork for trauma? What constitutes a “traumatic event?”

A few classic examples of traumatic events that can lead to lasting trauma are:

  • Natural disaster

  • Sexual abuse/assault

  • Shocking accident

  • Exposure to violence

  • Emotional abuse

  • A dangerous experience

By understanding that these profound, shocking and even painful life events can lead to your body or brain processing them as traumatic events, we can then understand why we are triggered into behaving or reacting a particular way to difficult — or even benign — situations.

Physical Symptoms of Trauma

Trauma doesn’t just provoke emotional reactions — it can provoke physical ones, too.

Here’s a list of physical reactions worth paying attention to, in the event that you or a loved one has experienced trauma.

  • Nausea

  • Dizziness

  • Headaches

  • Sudden, racing heart

  • Sweating

  • Hypervigilance

  • Jumpiness

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What Are Some Responses to Trauma?

There are a number of responses to trauma.

In the immediate or intermediate aftermath of a traumatic event, you can exhibit signs of increased anxiety, for example.

Another manifestation of trauma can be evident when someone is having a difficult time focusing. You may be physically present, but mentally, you’re in a different universe.

Sometimes, it can be focusing on something uplifting, or flashing back and reliving the traumatic event and the aftermath of the traumatic event in your head. 

A term for this kind of inability of focus is disassociation. Dissociation, although varied in potency and acuity, can show when someone loses a sense of themselves.  As a result, they don’t necessarily know where they are at any given time.

Other responses to trauma can be longer-lasting.

Here are some additional trauma responses to be on the lookout for, if you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event.

  • Crying.

  • Anxiety.

  • Frightening thoughts.

  • Nightmares or difficulty falling asleep.

  • Isolating yourself from family and friends.

  • Anger.

  • Irritability.

  • Avoiding triggering places, people or events.

What About Therapy — Can That Help?

Therapy can absolutely help with trauma.

Therapy can help make sense of a traumatic episode and the effects of trauma.

Therapy can also help give you the tools necessary to take control of your life.

A number of therapies have been shown effective in addressing mental health needs and mental health challenges.

Here are a few.

Psychotherapy, or “Talk Therapy”

Another effective tool against trauma is psychotherapy.

Talk therapy can be a powerful tool that works to make meaning of, give sense to and take control over traumatic events.

There are multiple forms of talk therapy, all of which have been shown effective in helping people overcome their mental health challenges — even traumatic challenges — and take better control of their lives.

Here’s a brief rundown of a few kinds of therapy you can expect to encounter, if indeed you seek out some form of talk therapy assistance:

  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which focuses on a patient’s thoughts and behaviors.

  • Humanistic Therapy (HT) focuses on a patient’s ability to make rational choices, as well as maximize the potential their lives have to offer.

  • Behavioral Therapy (BT) scrutinizes a patient’s behaviors, believing that behavior directly relates to and affects mental health.

  • Psychodynamic Therapy (PT) approaches a patient’s past, believing that the subconscious and its influences must be addressed in helping a patient make sense of what afflicts them.

  • Cognitive Therapy (CT) focuses strictly on a patient’s thoughts.

  • Gestalt Therapy (GT) stresses the importance of the here-and-now, and tries to get a patient to emphasize awareness of the here-and-now in order to help them better their life.

  • Existential Therapy (ET) focuses on free-will and one’s search for meaning — as well as one’s ability to construct meaning as they see fit.

Psychiatry

Psychiatry isn’t technically a form of psychotherapy. Psychiatrists instead are medical doctors that take a multi-pronged approach to the treatment of mental health issues — which include issues like trauma.

Psychiatrists are well trained and experienced and can therefore assist a whole panoply of mental health care needs and mental health care challenges to help people help themselves.

That said, aside from being able to prescribe medication, they’ll also frequently employ various forms of therapy — including talk therapy — to help people cope with and get a grip on traumatic experiences. 

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You Can Do Something About Trauma 

Trauma is the byproduct of a terrible event, and its effects should not be taken lightly.

Making matters more difficult, it can be tough sometimes to pick up on whether or not one is in fact traumatized.

Maybe you’ve experienced a traumatic event — maybe a loved one of yours.

The journey towards identifying and doing something about the trauma can be, to put it lightly, harrowing.

The good news, however, is when it comes to identifying, containing and then taking control of trauma, there’s a variety of available mental health resources.

If you’d like to do something about your mental health as it relates to trauma — or if you have a different mental health need — we hope to be of help to you. Whether you wish to utilize psychotherapy, psychiatry or group therapy, we hope to serve you as your journey onward in tackling your mental health challenges.

8 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. American Psychological Association. “Trauma.” APA.org, https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma.
  2. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/coping-with-traumatic-events.
  3. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/.
  4. Vlahov D, Galea S, Ahern J, Resnick H, Kilpatrick D. Sustained increased consumption of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana among Manhattan residents after September 11, 2001. American Journal of Public Health. 2004;94:253—254. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14759935/
  5. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Different approaches to psychotherapy. APA.org. Retrieved 2009, from https://www.apa.org/topics/psychotherapy/approaches.
  6. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
  7. Lampe, L., & Malhi, G. S. (2018). Avoidant personality disorder: current insights. Psychology research and behavior management, 11, 55–66. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5848673/
  8. Wang, P. (n.d.). What Are Dissociative Disorders? American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.