Trauma Triggers - PTSD Monthly Update, October, 2020

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PTSD Monthly Update - News Relevant to the Issues of Trauma and PTSD

October 2020


Treatment: Triggers and PTSD

Trauma Triggers and PTSD

A car backfiring on a crowded street. The aroma of meat at a backyard barbeque. A child running up to the curb as a car drives by. These sounds, smells, and sights can be very upsetting to some people with PTSD. Why? Because they are triggers.

What is a Trigger?

A trigger is something that provides a reminder of a trauma. Coming across a trigger can make a person with PTSD feel like they are right back in the event---facing the enemy, escaping a burning vehicle, being targeted by a suicide bomber. Army Veteran Andrew Reeves described a trigger he faced while at the mall with his nieces:

In the mall, a lady was coming towards me in a hurry. And she dove right into her purse. . . . I started moving away and I instantly went reaching for my hip and realized, “Wait. I don’t have a knife or a gun.” And this happened in, like, three seconds. . . . In my head all I was thinking was “Gun, gun, gun, gun. She’s gonna pull a gun on me.”

 And all she did was get her cell phone.

Army Veteran Andrew Reeves

Triggers and Avoidance

Because there are so many things in the world that can be triggers for people with PTSD, they may avoid going out, being with friends, or even thinking about things related to the trauma. This is called avoidance.

In the short term, it may feel like avoidance works. But as Dr. Sonya Norman of the PTSD Consultation Program notes, “Avoidance can feel good because it keeps someone with PTSD away from the triggers that upset them, but over time they avoid more and more things that most people consider safe and their life becomes more and more limited.”

Treatment Helps Build Coping Skills

Cognitive Processing Therapy, EMDR, Prolonged Exposure and other trauma-focused treatments can help people with PTSD stop avoiding. They won’t get rid of triggers, but they build skills to help take triggers more in stride. Andrew Reeves puts it well:

Do I still look for that danger point? Yes. Do I still examine it? Yes. But it doesn’t control me now. . . . I learned this in therapy: to assess the threat and realize the threat’s not there.

Watch Andrew Reeves’ story on AboutFace.


Trauma-Focused Treatment

In Prolonged Exposure---the treatment Reeves received---patients confront memories of the trauma, slowly, safely, and with their therapist’s help. This can make triggers feel less scary when they arise. Find out more about trauma-focused treatment...

READ MORE: Trauma-Focused Treatment

For Providers


PTSD Consultation Program

Treating Veterans with PTSD? We can help.

Any healthcare provider treating Veterans can ask our expert clinicians a question.  Meet our consultants and get started.

PTSD Monthly Lecture Series

November 18, 2020 at 2pm ET - Suicide and PTSD: Navigating Risk and Tailoring Evidence-Based Treatment by Ryan Holliday, PhD.

  • Mark your calendar for the 3rd Wednesday of the month at 2pm ET
  • Subscribe to monthly emails to find out how to join live lectures.
  • Registration is required to receive free continuing education credit for attending the live lecture.

Resource of the Month

Written Exposure Therapy is a brief, 5-session exposure-based psychotherapy for PTSD that is recommended by the VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guideline. It differs from other trauma-focused psychotherapies in its cost-efficiency and low treatment drop out.

Our free continuing education course reviews the treatment’s theoretical mechanisms and development, gives a comprehensive description of the therapy protocol and its delivery and describes the type of patient who would be a good candidate.

Learn more and take our free continuing education course:

Written Exposure Therapy: A Brief PTSD Treatment by Denise Sloan and Brian Marx

Research at the Center

Written Exposure Therapy and Reducing the Risk of Suicide

Although research also has shown that evidence-based PTSD treatments can reduce suicidal ideation, it is challenging to provide most of these treatments to high-risk service members on an acute inpatient unit. Center researchers are examining the use of Written Exposure Therapy, an evidence-based treatment for PTSD, and if this 5-session intervention can meaningfully reduce the future risk of suicide among service members with PTSD.

PTSD in the News

Researchers Streamline PTSD Diagnosis with Machine Learning

Dr. Brian Marx from the Center’s Behavioral Science Division, is interviewed about used machine learning to explore streamlining the 'gold standard' diagnostic tool for PTSD. Read more...*

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Thank you,

The Staff of VA’s National Center for PTSD

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