The Most Common PTSD Triggers–and How You Can Manage Them

Loud Noises, Large Crowds, and Other PTSD Triggers to Look Out For

When you hear about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, your first thought may be about war veterans. Symptoms have often been associated with the battlefield: "shell shock" after World War I and "combat fatigue" after World War II. But the condition affects survivors of non-battle trauma as well.

Who Gets PTSD?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), PTSD can develop at any age after exposure to a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. People who have experienced physical or sexual assault, abuse, an accident, disaster, or other serious event are at risk for the condition.

In 2021, 3.6% of adults experienced PTSD, and many of them probably suffered from symptoms long before the diagnosis, according to the NIMH. The prevalence of PTSD among adults was higher for females (5.2%) than for males (1.8%).

What Are PTSD Symptoms?

Symptoms of PTSD range in severity, said Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, chief of psychiatry at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. They can be intrusive thoughts or nightmares that go away on their own. Or they can be more severe and chronic, including feelings of numbness, estrangement, guilt, and irritability. You may feel hyper-aroused, stressed, or anxious, and you may also experience physical symptoms, such as nausea, shaking, chills, heart palpitations, and tension headaches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

To be diagnosed with PTSD, you would typically have been directly affected by the traumatic event, said Dr. Ritchie. You may believe that your own life or someone else's life is in danger. According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms have to last for at least a month to be diagnosed as PTSD. Many people develop symptoms within three months of the trauma, though they may appear later and often persist for months or years.

Recognizing PTSD Triggers

Triggers are everyday experiences that cause people to relive an earlier trauma. People, places, smells, and sounds that are similar to what survivors experienced during the traumatic event are common triggers, said Dr. Ritchie.

Upsetting smells, such as burning meat and diesel fuel, could remind veterans of charred flesh and military trucks, for example. Triggering sounds, including helicopters, firecrackers, or other loud bangs, may be reminders of a shooting. A victim of sexual assault may experience PTSD symptoms when reminded of the circumstances of the assault. If it took place in a dorm, for example, an individual may not go back into small rooms. A certain perfume or fragrance can also be a reminder of an assault, said Dr. Ritchie, as can consensual sexual activity.

PTSD Trigger Management

Being prepared is one of the best tactics for managing PTSD triggers.

So, if it's the Fourth of July, know that fireworks are likely, and plan ahead if sharp loud noises are upsetting. "Don't go to a large public place with loud booms where it's hard to escape," said Dr. Ritchie. "You might feel trapped in a large crowd. I'd recommend finding a safe, comfortable, quiet place."

However, it's neither possible nor healthy to avoid too many scenarios. "One of the more disabling symptoms is numbness and avoidance," said Dr. Ritchie. If symptoms are so severe that you're not leaving the house, "that's definitely a point to seek treatment."

One way mental health professionals treat symptoms of PTSD is through exposure therapy, which asks sufferers to relive the traumatic event in a safe, controlled environment. This can help gain control of fear and learn ways to cope. The goal is for people to "learn that trauma-related memories and cues are not dangerous and do not need to be avoided," according to the American Psychological Association.

People with PTSD have also found success with cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and lifestyle practices such as yoga and meditation.

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