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Triggers Can Make Anxiety and PTSD Flare Up

Triggers can cause anxiety and PTSD to spike, but the reaction is temporary. Here's why triggers inflame anxiety and PTSD and what you can do about it.

Things like depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are insidious. We work hard, sometimes for years, to take away their power so they no longer control our lives. And we do it! We’re going along, innocently living our lives, anxiety and such at a tolerable level, when, bam – these beasts spring up and give chase. When this happened to me recently, it took me a while, but I finally realized what was happening.

One day, I was driving my son to school. I approached an intersection rather reluctantly and felt trepidatious as I continued through it. Odd, I thought, but I dismissed it. Later that day, also while driving, a random thought hit me: I was days away from the ten-year anniversary of a car accident that left me with a mild traumatic brain injury. I once again dismissed the thought and forgot about it.

Then, the anniversary date arrived. Thanks to a sometimes spotty memory, I didn’t actively remember that it was the day. I found myself inexplicably tense and irritable. I had chest pains and it was a bit difficult to breathe – seasonal allergies, of course. No. Not seasonal allergies. I figured out that this wasn’t allergies when the intrusive images and thoughts about the experience invaded my mind. I realized at that moment what this was: an anxiety reaction, a flare-up of PTSD, associated with the anniversary of the event.

Anxiety Can Flare up in Response to Triggers

What on Earth? Anxiety around the car accident and its aftermath have pretty much disappeared. Sure, a degree of anxiety lingers, but it doesn’t have power over me. As it turns out, anxiety and trauma disorders like PTSD can continue to flare up around triggers, such as the anniversary of an event.

Even when PTSD and anxiety are under control, they can continue to resurface for years. Triggers can cause anxiety to spike, but the reaction is temporary.With grief, the flare-ups are called sudden temporary upsurges of grief (STUG) reactions. Even years after a loved one’s passing, certain reminders can cause grief to intensify. So it is with anxiety and trauma reactions. Even when they’ve been under control, triggers can cause them to spike again. Perhaps we should call them STUA (sudden temporary upsurges of anxiety) or STUART reactions (sudden temporary upsurges of anxiety recurring terribly). Okay, I made those up, especially “STUART” because I thought it flowed better than “STUA.”

Happily, these eruptions of anxiety can be calmed fairly quickly.

A Few Ways to Calm the “STUART” Anxiety

  • Draw on the things in your toolbox that have helped you through anxiety in the past.
  • Recognize the trigger and stay away from it for just a little while (you don’t want to start fully avoiding).
  • Be aware of your thoughts and emotions, and take care of them.

I think that the best letter in the above acronyms (real and fabricated) is the “t.” It means temporary. When you recognize these reactions for what they are, you can once again calm the associated anxiety.

Connect with Tanya on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, LinkedIn, and her website.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

19 thoughts on “Triggers Can Make Anxiety and PTSD Flare Up”

  1. My ex-fiancé and I have a young child together. My ex also has 2 other children each 4 yrs older than eachother. The father of the other two is aggressive in nature apparent by his collegiant sport and now coach. He was convicted of domestic abuse and continued all forms over my family especially targeting me. My anxiety level once non existing rose through the roof and decided to separate myself avoiding his presence all together. After my ex had a heart issue requiring me to reseaitate her and induced into a coma he took the opprortunity and stirred up amazing trouble.Breaking into my home I found him and HE called the police onme?! After hanging up he attacked me attempting to make a criminal out of me but after 4 separate attempts unsuccessful. The story deepens but here is the bottom line. Separating my self from all of them I have lost my child because I’m betrayed as an abuser and and somehow the blame has shifted on me. I’ve been diagnosed with signs of PTSD, My Therapist agrees. The entire Court System among others treats me different now. I understand my PTSD a bit. I’m ok until my triggers leak into my life even through others cause my internal alarm tells me.

    Is someone who suffers from PTSD a protected class? I feel it needs to be understood as I clam up sometimes and fail to defend myself. Looking for help I stumbled on this blog.

    1. Hi Sean,
      I’m sorry to read of what you are experiencing. Your question is an important one. I’m not familiar with the legal aspects of PTSD, but I found two resources that might give you some information you need or spark ideas for where to turn next. Also, check local organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a domestic violence shelter, or other such group. They will likely have resources to share with you. The two I found are Accommodating PTSD in Our Courts (http://www.legaltechcenter.net/download/whitepapers/Accommodating%20PTSD%20in%20our%20Courts.pdf) and Domestic Violence — Legal Protection from Abuse. I hope these offer some useful information.

  2. I’ve been having major issues with stress or anxiety to the point every time it starts I feel like I’m going to throw up, I’m planning on going to a doctor to see if there’s anything they can do I started noticing it majorly after my boyfriend got into a motorcycle accident and then went out and bought another one but anytime him or my toddler starts acting horrible causing stress it flares it up my boyfriend claims its in my head or if I try to go somewhere I start becoming overwhelmed and nauseous so I try to avoid going anywhere and masseuse medicine barely touches it I’m even avoiding eating because that’s making it worse also

    1. Hello Crystal,
      I think it’s wise of you to see a doctor about your physical symptoms. It’s good, too, that you’re so aware of how your life is being restricted. Avoidance is common and can negatively impact life. Eating, sleeping, and more can also be disrupted by anxiety. When you see your doctor, discuss everything with him/her so he/she can recommend the right type of treatment for you.

  3. Why do individuals who suffer from PTSD from various tragic events that’s happened in their life (well..actually has been diagnosed on three events desperately that they have PTSD, and then married someone how has PTSD), I don’t know if that makes the PTSD more severe??…anyway…the question is why does your body remember anniversaries of times of these events and start having reactions before you even know Why? How can your body tell, before you remember? Please explain.

    1. Hi Donna,
      Your question is one that researchers are attempting to answer. The brain works in mysterious ways, and there is much subconscious activity that we have yet to understand. This means that there isn’t a definitive answer to your very good question — yet. That said, many things are known about PTSD and the memories and reactions that are triggered by anniversaries. This article provides good information: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/problems/anniversary-reactions.asp

  4. Whose Naughty and whose Nice. Hypervigellence VS Vibing strangers.

    I am a PTS survivor. I choose not to call it PTSD, like the recent 2010 US Armed Services choice, because it is not something that developed but occured because of a traumatic experience. That being said, I discovered something about Hypervigellence that I think that scientist might learn something from this anomoly.

    Over the last 10 years I became hypervigellent without knowing that I was. I would search for threats great or small. It was second nature to me. I was kidnapped in 1998. I was also a survivor of an earthquake/Tsunami, and was stalked, as well as living in the area where the DC sniper was shooting people.

    One of these alone would cause some people trauma, I’m sure, but all of them. Were a little overwhelming. That being said.

    When I did realize I was hypervigellent. Something occurred to me

    When I decided to turn it off, or stop doing it. It had combined with good old fashion common sense about people, or strangers.

    When I did decide to stop being hypervigellent. It wasn’t as good an idea to stop cold turkey as it would seem.

    In fact I discovered that all people seach for dangers, threats. In fact its a healthy thing to do.

    You wouldnt’ want to ignore a bad vibe you got from someone who was possibly going to do something bad.

    In fact hypervigellence probably is inate to people and was willed by God.

    When I decided to go cold turkey on Hypervigellence. It was a dumb idea.

    Though I talked to people more. The first person I trusted burned me, lied about me, and said nastier things that anyone has ever said in my life.

    That being said. PTSD sufferers.

    If your trying to work on hypervigellence. Consider continuing to examining whose naughty and whose nice.

    Because it is typcial facet of safety.

    Its not wise to go cold turkey on hypervigellence.

    One suggestion is to talk to your therapist, and to discuss that issue.

    Consider continuing to check whose naughty or nice sometimes.

    I’ve found that if you a hypernegative or blaming then scale it back.

    If your too trusting, you could be dropping the standard vibing whether a person has good intentions.

    Food for thought.

  5. Hello, back in 2011 I had a really bad time, for some odd reason I could NOT sleep for 25 days strait no matter what I did and after awhile I was having visions ect. and things were just getting worse well I was flown from FL. to N.H my home town where all the trauma took place in the first place and I wasn’t at my parents house for more than 3 or 4 hours and I guess I just snapped, something took control of my body and I guess I got violent. Well the police were called and I was put under at the hospital and then 2 or 3 days later I was thrown into the loony bin! NOT FUN! but the Dr. they gave me to talk to said that because I have been abused sexually from my step father for at least ten years and I never did anything about it he told me that it had it’s own way of making me deal with it. and now I am not the same person at ALL! I hate it! I was diagnosed with PTSD. I wish it would just go away because I want my old self back!

    1. Hello Sharon,
      I’m so sorry to read about your experiences. Trauma does affect people dramatically, and the desire for your old self is very common. What you describe is, as you know, absolutely a trauma reaction caused by triggers. HealthyPlace has a blog dedicated to trauma and healing from PTSD (and healing is indeed possible, but it’s a process): http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/. Michele Rosenthal was the author, and she has a wealth of helpful posts. Dan Hays has just begun writing this column, and I’m sure he will maintain the excellent quality of Trauma! A PTSD Blog. Between the articles there and the reader comments, you just might find helpful information.

  6. First diagnosed with FTD. was commited 3 times. the second visit i was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Then dignosed with Major depression and anxiety disorder with features of BPD. after 3 years of psycoanalysis, after some brief relief i am back where I started. I cannot recognize a trigger. everything can be a trigger.
    The best I can do is to try and distract myself. My wife hates dogs. i think a dog would help me. i need some to touch and not judge what i do and say

    1. Hello Lou,
      You are so right — sometimes it seems like everything can be a trigger. Mental illness sure can turn the world into one big, overwhelming picture. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to start narrowing down that big picture so you can work on things step by step. You’re also right about animals. They can be extremely therapeutic. Do you think it might be possible to reach a compromise with your wife? If she’s adamant against dogs, would she accept a different type of pet? And what type of animal do you like that could provide the same benefits that you describe? Oh, and by the way, distracting yourself is a great strategy. It involves purposely choosing what you want to focus on, and it loosens the mind’s grip on the other things. Doing this can help people gradually feel in more control. So congratulate yourself for finding a great strategy, and if it’s not working as well as you want it to, keep at it. Everything takes practice.

  7. Ok, I experienced a second trauma that mirrored the first. It feels the same, yet different. (like big plane/small plane, but more Complex)

    Instead of hyper-vigilant, it’s something else… highly aware, deeply sensitive… not angry, mad, or violent. It takes a lot to upset me, but when it finally hits, it feels intense (last straw).

    (Ok, 1st trauma 2006, 2nd almost 2 months ago & 3rd almost 2 weeks ago… kind of just here/numb now)

    I know it’s debatable, but do you think these symptoms are the same or different?

    1. Hi Tami,
      I would never want to do harm to you by trying to determine the nature of your symptoms. I think that visiting with a therapist or a psychiatrist might help you sort everything out. I will say, though, that it makes a lot of sense that you are having this same-yet-different sensation. When someone re-experiences trauma directly or through a trigger, the brain kicks into the fight or flight mode, and the original thoughts and feelings resurface. Feeling highly aware, deeply sensitive, etc. can be part of hypervigilance, and the experience of anger the way you describe it are frequently experienced as part of trauma response, too. To experience so many traumas, two close together, is unsettling to put it mildly. What you describe seems very appropriate. Seeing a mental health professional might be very helpful for you. I wish you the best.

  8. My big trigger is rejection. My PTSD kicks in with low self-esteem, depression and lack of motivation. Job interviews do this to me when I do not receive a phone call afterwards. I wonder what I did wrong to excess. I think it came from my mother praising me sometimes and being mean to me at other times when I was young for no reason that I caused but as a little kid, I had no clue and always tried to be perfect.

    I try to re-direct my thoughts to get them un-stuck, focus on the present, do something although it is hard to do and use neurotherapy, which helps to calm my racing thoughts.

    I wish employers knew how inconsiderate this is. But it’s the way things are today. I have to keep searching for a job even though it brings up these triggers, and try to deal with them one day at a time.

    1. Hi Jane,
      Thank you for your comment. It seems that you are very insightful into your own thoughts, anxieties, triggers, and the things that contributed to them. Insight doesn’t always come easily and naturally, and it can be quite a long process and ordeal to discover true insights. Be proud of yourself for that! Wouldn’t it be nice if once we had insights into what is going on that is causing our anxiety/PTSD to fare up that we no longer had struggles with these things? I’ve often thought that, thinking, “Okay, now that I know what this is about, I can put it behind me and move on.” As you know, it’s not that simple. Again, though, you are engaging in very effective things to overcome PTSD. Keep at it even when it’s hard.

      I noticed one very important thing you said. You said (about employers’ inconsideration when failing to be timely in job notification — which is very real to a whole lot of people including myself, by the way) that it’s the way things are today. I’m glad you said that because I think it’s something great to share with others who come here. I work on my own self esteem and drive to be perfect, and I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of things that are out of our control and aren’t at all personal. When we don’t get a call or an e-mail we need (or something similar), it’s important to realize that it’s probably not because of something we did wrong. It often has nothing to do with us and really isn’t rejection at all. When you know in your heart that it’s not true rejection, it might stop being a PTSD trigger. Again, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with everyone.

  9. In my experience when I trigger it’s because a memory has not fully processed. Either that or there is some aspect of that memory that I have either avoided or of which I am unaware. I dissociated profoundly so there is much that does not reside in my conscious memory. In either case it means another trip or two to my therapist for some EMDR work.

    I find that anniversaries can trigger memories that are deeply rooted in the nether regions. I just passed a 50th anniversary of an issue that was profound in its horror. It was buried and I was unaware of it until a couple of months ago. I am still working on it, but it has diminished significantly in two months. It is the core issue and I expect it to take a while longer.

    To manage daily anxiety I have an EMDR program on my computer that has both visual and audio bilateral stimulation. As background music I play a binaural beats meditation audio and go for 10-25 minutes, depending on how I feel. This has proved to be an effective regimen. If things are particularly difficult 200 mg of L-Theanine can help a lot.

    1. Hi Larry,
      I appreciate your sharing your insights with everyone! You are very correct memories left unexplored or unprocessed. That’s precisely why they can be triggered, and you’re very right — it’s important to healing to address them, and it is indeed possible to address and diminish them. Thanks for also sharing things that work for you. While I don’t have personal experience with either EMDR or L-Theanine, these are both things I have heard of, and I know they can be quite effective. As with any method of therapy or, especially, medication (whether a traditional pharmaceutical or an alternative), it is very important for people to talk with professionals before beginning such treatment. Something that is extremely effective and safe for one person might be damaging to another. As with anything, people should always proceed with caution, but it really is great for people to be able to learn about all of the treatment approaches available. Again, thank you so much for sharing!

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