PTSD Triggers and a Safety Plan

PTSD triggers may be all around you. Even though it may sometimes feel like PTSD symptoms come out-of-the-blue, PTSD symptoms rarely spontaneously occur. Instead, whether you are aware of it not, PTSD symptoms are often triggered or cued by something in our internal (anything that happens within your body such as thoughts or feelings) or external (anything that happens outside your body, such as a stressful situation) environment.

Because certain thoughts, feelings, or situations can bring up uncomfortable PTSD symptoms, such as memories of a traumatic event or feelings of being on edge and anxious, one way of coping with these symptoms is by increasing your awareness of these triggers. You can prevent or lessen the impact of certain PTSD symptoms by identifying what specific types of thoughts, feelings, and situations trigger them, and then, take steps to limit the occurrence or impact of those triggers.

Kinds of Triggers

Triggers can fall into two categories: Internal Triggers and External Triggers. Internal triggers are things that you feel or experience inside your body. Internal triggers include thoughts or memories, emotions, and bodily sensations (for example, your heart racing). External triggers are situations, people, or places that you might encounter throughout your day (or things that happen outside your body).

Listed below are some common internal and external triggers.

Internal Triggers

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Memories
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Frustration
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling vulnerable
  • Racing heart beat
  • Pain
  • Muscle tension

External Triggers

  • An argument
  • Seeing a news article that reminds you of your traumatic event
  • Watching a movie or television show that reminds you of your traumatic event
  • Seeing a car accident
  • Certain smells
  • The end of a relationship
  • An anniversary
  • Holidays
  • A specific place
  • Seeing someone who reminds you of a person connected to your traumatic event

Identifying Your Triggers

Try to think of when your PTSD symptoms usually come up. Ask yourself the following questions to identify your triggers: What types of situations are you in? What is happening around you? What kind of emotions are you feeling? What thoughts are you experiencing? What does your body feel like? Get out a sheet of paper and write down as many internal and external triggers as you can.

Coping with Triggers

Now, the best way of coping with triggers is to avoid them altogether. However, this is almost impossible to do. Why? Well, you cannot really avoid your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Much of these are out of our control. In regard to external triggers, we can take some steps to manage our environment (for example, not going to certain places that we know will trigger us), but we cannot control everything that happens to us. For example, you might inadvertently come into contact with a news story or conversation that reminds you of your traumatic event.

Because we often cannot avoid triggers, it is important to learn ways of coping with triggers. Effective, healthy coping strategies for lessening the impact of triggers include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Relaxation
  • Self-soothing
  • Grounding
  • Expressive writing
  • Social support
  • Deep breathing

The more strategies you have available to you, the better off you will be in managing your triggers. In addition, the more coping strategies you have, the more likely you will be able to prevent the development of unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol and drug use.

Further, simply being more aware of your triggers can be beneficial. As a result of this increased awareness, your emotional reactions may begin to feel more understandable, valid, predictable, and less out of control. This can definitely positively impact your mood and overall well-being.

Some Final Important Information About Triggers

Although it is important to increase your awareness of your triggers, doing so can cause some distress. Some people might actually become triggered by trying to identify their triggers. Therefore, before you take steps to identify your triggers, make sure you have a safety plan in place in case you experience some distress.

What Is a Safety Plan for PTSD?

As the name implies, a safety plan is designed to keep you safe when you are suddenly confronted with a difficult situation or crisis. It is basically a way of planning ahead for how to cope with problems should they arise. For example, what would you do if you start to experience a flashback while at the grocery store? How would you cope with intrusive thoughts while in a business meeting?

Below are some ideas of things to consider including in your personalized safety plan for dealing with your PTSD symptoms when they occur.

Think Ahead

Before you go out, think about whether or not you might encounter some triggers for your PTSD symptoms. Identify what those triggers may be and how you can avoid them. If you can’t avoid them, come up with several methods of coping with them.

In other words, learning how to identify and cope with PTSD triggers is an important first step in putting together your PTSD safety plan.

Write Down a List of Emergency Numbers

Social support can be an excellent way of coping with PTSD symptoms. However, social support is only useful if you can get in touch with someone when you are in need. Therefore, make a list of supportive people you can call should you be in a situation where you need help. Make sure you put more than one number on the list in case the first person you call is not available. If you have a therapist and you are able to contact him or her outside of session, you may want his or her name on your list as well.

You may want to make sure you have these numbers programmed into your phone in addition to written out in an easy to access location.

Make Sure You Have Your Medication With You

If you are on a medication for PTSD, make sure that you have it available so that you don’t run into any risk of missing a dose. Also, if you are on PRN medication (medication taken as needed), make sure that you have it with you in case you are in a situation where you need it to manage your symptoms.

Identify Ways of Coping

When people are experiencing emotional distress, it can be very difficult to think of ways of coping with that distress.

Therefore, it is best to think ahead of how you might cope with emotional distress should it arise.

It may be helpful to make “coping cards,” notecards you can carry with you that take you through a particular coping strategy. To make your own coping cards, get some index cards and write down, step-by-step, what you would need to do to cope with distress using a particular coping strategy, such as deep breathing or grounding. Take these cards with you wherever you go. Then, when you are experiencing distress, take out the card and go through each step.

There are also phone apps available which can help you prepare for crises with PTSD.

Identify Early Warning Signs

Take a time to learn about and write down the early warning signs that a PTSD symptom may be coming on. Most symptoms don’t suddenly occur, but are, in fact, preceded by these warning signs. Warning signs may include:

  • Changes in how you think
  • Changes in your mood
  • Changes in your behaviour
  • Learning to recognise these warning signs is important both when you are coping with PTSD daily and to avoid relapses as you heal.
  • Enlist The Help Of Others

Finally, if you are going someplace where you know there may be PTSD triggers, have someone you trust contact you at several times throughout the day to see how you are doing and whether or not you need any support. Check-ins like these will make sure that help is not far away should you need it.

Bottom Line on Making a PTSD Safety Plan

A safety plan is all about being prepared. Even if you feel as though there is hardly any chance that your PTSD will be triggered, it is best to take the time to come up with a plan in case you do encounter a trigger. The amount of time that you spend coming up with a safety plan will be well worth it if a crisis situation is prevented.

The following book called Home Design and Lifestyle Changes is an excellent resource for those dealing with these disorders.


  1. What a helpful article- thank you. I thought I was doing crap managing my panic attacks but I can see I’m already half way to getting better!

  2. […] Here in Australia we are subjected to the same amount of social media bombardment and should be mindful of what are children are subjected to. The events around the world are constantly on the news and the events of Britain dominated the news cycle. It is impossible for our young people to avoid as it cycles through TV, Twitter, Facebook and all the social media platforms. Keep a close eye on your young charges and yourself for PTSD warning signs. It is an overwhelming time. For warning signs read PTSD Triggers and Safety Plan.  […]

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