Talk about PTSD often involves some mention of the phrase ‘trigger’ but if you are not experiencing PTSD yourself, it can be difficult to understand how this works and what it means for your loved one.


A trigger is something that reminds a person of a traumatic incident that has led to distress or PTSD and essentially “sets them off”. Depending on the person, they may become unresponsive, shut down, dissociate or disconnect from the moment, feel depressed, become violent and in some cases they may self-harm or undertake suicidal behaviours. Even though the person is generally physically safe, a trigger often causes a physical reaction that mimics a danger response, where fear sets in and the heart races. The nature of a trigger will differ between people, it may even differ between people who were at the same traumatic event.

Triggers typically involve the senses. They can include certain smells, sounds, sights or thoughts. Triggers can be difficult to control or avoid.

Your loved one may avoid certain situations or isolate completely in an effort to avoid triggers. They fear they will encounter something that reminds them of the event and they will become distressed.

At times, triggers can complicate your relationship, particularly if the link between the traumatic incident and the trigger doesn’t seem straightforward to you.


Some examples of triggers that are relatively common or that have been shared publicly:

  • Driving along a particular road, intersection or bridge
    Some people impacted by a traumatic event will avoid the site of the event and this can then extend to areas attached to that site such as the road itself. In some cases, a person may start to feel triggered by more roads and bridges, which can lead to isolation and avoidance of driving or being in a car in general.
  • News
    Stories reported on the news that are similar to an event that contributed to the person’s distress, they may become triggered.
  • Anniversaries
    The date of the event itself can be a trigger, particularly where the event is significant enough to warrant media attention or is tied to another event such as Father’s Day or Christmas. Similarly, the last day of service can also be a trigger for distress.
  • Fireworks
    The noise can be upsetting as it can remind people of a shooting incident or battlefield.
  • Being around children
    If a person has been exposed to crimes involving children or involved in investigating child abuse cases, being around children and even your own children may be a trigger.
  • Petrol or burnt rubber smells
    These are common odours at fires and motor vehicle accidents.
  • Deep-fried food
    After responding to an incident where an individual was burnt extensively, a first responder felt physically unwell anytime they could smell food that had been deep-fried.
  • Fireworks
    The smell of gunpowder can take people back to an event that involved a discharged firearm.
  • Perfume
    A Veteran who experienced an incident while serving overseas which inadvertently led to a box of perfume being destroyed was taken back to the event after he returned and was walking through a department store with his wife and could smell that particular scent.

It is likely that one of the features of your loved one’s treatment will be addressing their triggers so that over time they are ‘triggered’ less frequently or less severely. Knowing what your loved one’s triggers and the exercises they should do in response can help you mentally prepare for these situations so you know what to do if or when it happens. This is where a psychoeducation session may be useful.