How to Understand Trauma Triggers

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It can happen out of the blue. Maybe you’re checking out at the store or meeting a friend for lunch. Perhaps you’re taking a walk or at work. With what seems like no warning, you find yourself immediately plunged into a sense of anxiety, panic, or dread.

What’s happened? You may have experienced a trauma trigger.

Trauma triggers can happen if you’ve experienced any trauma, whether physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, natural disasters, sudden loss, or other violence. They can create a significant disruption in your life. They pull your emotions away from the present moment and back to what you experienced during the trauma.

How Trauma Triggers Work

Your brain and physical body are profoundly interconnected. When something significant happens, whether good or bad, your mind is at work in the background. They record sensory input from that moment: smells, touches, sounds, words, gestures, location, even the angle of the sun.

The brain might even record what you were thinking about or doing right before the trauma occurred. The anniversary date of the trauma can also be a trigger. You may or may not even be aware of these sensations at the time of the trauma.

When you experience trauma, understandably, you will want to protect yourself from experiencing it again. To do so, your brain can remain on alert for any signals that the event may occur again. This undercurrent of high alert is often there whether you’re aware of it or not.

How the Brain Works

When we’re not feeling threatened, the “thinking part” of our brain is in control. We call this part the pre-frontal cortex. We use it to navigate daily life and responsibilities. It helps keep us focused and able to manage distractions.

But when we experience a trauma trigger, the amygdala, a small part hidden deep inside the brain, bypasses the “thinking part.”  It is responsible for regulating fear. Protecting you is its agenda. It doesn’t care about trying to think logically. In its primal drive to keep you safe, the amygdala will seize upon events and sensations it perceives as threatening—even if they aren’t.

Fight, Flight, or Flee Mode

When the amygdala registers a “threat,” your brain and physiological reactions can go right into the “fight, flight, or flee” mode you felt during your trauma. This mode is where the extreme emotional and physical discomfort of trauma happens.

Your brain doesn’t know that the trauma danger isn’t there anymore.  All it knows is that there’s a similar stimulus present that was also there when the trauma occurred. The amygdala registers the sound of a car horn or a screaming child as events that are more threatening than they are. Perhaps your seat belt locks up, and your amygdala thinks you’re dangerously confined.

Some reminders, of course, are more prominent. If you return to the event where a traumatic event happened, your amygdala may already be well-prepared to react. You may find yourself dreading the upcoming anniversary of a car accident, assault, or sudden loss. But even though they are apparent triggers, your brain is reacting in the same way.

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Finding Help

Dealing with trauma can be excruciating and challenging. Even though trauma triggers can be your brain’s way of trying to keep you safe, many times, such triggers are harmful and unproductive. But recovery from trauma and desensitizing yourself to triggers is possible.

Working with an experienced mental health professional often allows this journey to move more smoothly than trying to tackle it on your own. A skilled therapist can help you (and your brain) process these triggers. Therapists often use a variety of techniques that assist trauma survivors in moving forward.

You don’t have to live as a victim of your past trauma. If you’re ready to take steps toward healing, I encourage you to call me today or visit us at

New Perspective Counseling is a group practice dedicated to emotional wellness and healing. Our caring therapists provide psychotherapy, individual counseling, marriage counseling and family counseling in our Highland, Michigan office. We are located conveniently near Milford, White Lake, Commerce Township, Holly, Hartland and Brighton, Michigan.