When we go through a traumatic experience in our lives, it takes significant time and effort to heal and move on from it. And sometimes, even when we think we’re okay already, trauma can still linger in ways we don’t realize and leave us with psychological wounds that can be triggered in certain situations.
Mental health care nurse Stephanie A. Wright defines trauma triggers as any stimulus that reminds us of a past trauma and elicits a strong emotional or behavioral reaction that may make us feel as if we’re reliving that trauma all over again. These triggers are unique to every individual and may not always be easy for us to recognize, says Wright.
With that said, here are 5 psychology-backed signs that your trauma wound is triggered, according to experts:
1. Intrusive Thoughts
According to cognitive-behavioral therapist Dr. Seth J. Gillihan, it’s common for people with trauma to have intrusive thoughts. Most often, these thoughts are associated with memories of the trauma that they will actively try to block out from their minds, only for it to return over and over again, replaying in their heads as if on a loop. Having intrusive thoughts can be upsetting, but it’s also a cry for help from your subconscious to work through your unhealed trauma.
Another tell-tale sign that your trauma wound is triggered is when you have trouble sleeping, either because of insomnia or bad dreams. This is because, similar to our previous point, nightmares are another way our minds try to tell us that we’re still hurting from our past trauma, and until we process it fully, we’re likely to re-experience it in our dreams when our subconscious mind takes over. Otherwise, we may develop difficulty sleeping, says neurophysiologist Dr. Michelle Carr.
3. Emotional Outbursts
Aside from the cognitive effects we mentioned earlier, there are also affective manifestations of a triggered trauma wound such as difficulty regulating one’s emotions. According to Dr. Gillihan, strong feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger are very common reactions to trauma. And sometimes, these feelings can be so overwhelming that they may result in intense emotional outbursts; that is, getting upset and snapping at people over even the littlest things. People who experienced trauma may also become more irritable and on edge, long after the trauma-inducing event is over, but they may not always know why.
When something triggers our trauma wound, like an uncomfortable situation or a conflict with a loved one for example, we may begin to feel constantly on guard and hypervigilant, says Dr. Matthew Tull, professor of psychology and clinical researcher specializing in anxiety and PTSD. We may find it difficult to relax, become more alert and aware of our surroundings, and avoid anything that makes us feel even the slightest bit threatened or uneasy. Sometimes, this may even manifest as physical symptoms of sweaty palms, racing heart beat, a clenched jaw, and muscle tension. This is because, according to Dr. Tull, we want to avoid getting hurt again and don’t want to be caught off guard. Past trauma has made us distrust both ourselves and those around us, and see the world as a dangerous place.
5. Guilt & Self-Loathing
It’s common to feel guilty after we experience a traumatic event, says Dr. Gillihan, and many will often ask themselves if there was more they could have done to avoid it. But fixating on these thoughts and ruminating too much on negative feelings can cause us to see ourselves as weak, inadequate, and blame ourselves for what we went through. This is why victims of trauma can sometimes develop depression, because of the emotional toll trauma can take on our self-esteem. As with most trauma-related beliefs, explains Dr. Gillihan, we are often more critical of ourselves in hindsight and feel unnecessary guilt and self-loathing about our traumatic past. It’s a maladaptive self-protective effort to avoid traumatic experiences in the future and better make sense of what happened to us in the past.
So, what are your thoughts on this video? Do any of the things we’ve talked about here resonate with you?
It’s important to keep in mind that although trauma can negatively impact us in lasting and recurring ways, there’s still hope for us to overcome it and heal the wounds it’s left us with. Trauma-informed care can help us live happier and more fulfilling lives, unconstrained by a traumatic past. So don’t hesitate to talk to someone about it or reach out to a mental health care professional today.
And as always, Psych2goers, remember that you matter. ‘Til next time!
- Carr, M. (2016, Mar 30). Nightmares After Trauma. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dream-factory/201603/nightmares-after-trauma
- Gillihan, S. J. (2016, Sep 7). 21 Common Reactions to Trauma. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/201609/21-common-reactions-trauma
- Tull, M. (2023, Jan 23). Hypervigilance in PTSD and Other Disorders. VeryWell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/hypervigilance-2797363
- Wright, S. A. (2021, Nov 8). How to Identify and Overcome Trauma Triggers. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/health/trauma-triggers