Learning the Trauma Triggers

As we have discovered in recent previous posts, trauma can cause children and adults to act and react on a continuum pertaining to the impact of the trauma. Behavior can be exaggerated as in hyper-arousal, or avoiding or denying, such as in dissociation. To further understand these behaviors, we need to know the triggers that prompt traumatic responses. These triggers cue the brain to gather and send memories to the part of the brain which will then be in control.

Take a look at triggers that can cause traumatic responses

I will be using research from the University of Alberta, Sexual Assault Centre published July 30, 2008.  We list the definition and information on the triggers of trauma. Why not take a moment and review it?

A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.

A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her original trauma.

Triggers are very personal and unique to each person. A person’s triggers are activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

Considering the sensory stimuli, the survivor of trauma may begin to avoid situations that she/he thinks triggered the flashback. She/he will react to this flashback (trigger) with an emotional intensity similar to the original trauma.

The most common triggers are sight and sound, followed by touch and smell, then taste. A combination of the senses can be identified as triggers also, especially in situations that strongly resemble the original trauma. Although triggers are varied and diverse, there are often common themes. Examples are listed in parentheses.


  • Often someone who resembles the abuser or who has similar traits or objects (clothing, hair color, distinctive walk or mannerism),
  • Any situation where someone else is being abused (anything from a raised eyebrow and verbal comment to actual physical abuse),
  • The object that was used to abuse,
  • The objects that are associated with or were common in the household where the abuse took place (alcohol, piece of furniture, time of year),
  • Any place or situation where the abuse took place (specific locations in a house, holidays, family events, social settings).
Father scolding child angrily
Anything that sounds like anger could be a trigger for trauma.


  • Anything that sounds like anger (raised voices, arguments, bangs and thumps, something breaking),
  • Anything that sounds like pain or fear (crying, whispering, screaming),
  • Anything that might have been in the place or situation prior to, during, or after the abuse or reminds her/him of the abuse (sirens, foghorns, music, crickets chirping, car door closing),
  • Anything that resembles sounds that the abuser made (whistling, footsteps, pop top can opening, tone of voice),
  • Words of abuse (curses, labels, put-downs, specific words).


  • Anything that resembles the smell of the abuser (tobacco, alcohol, drugs, after shave, perfume),
  • Any smells that resemble the place or situation where the abuse occurred (food cooking ,wood, odors, alcohol).
man with belt hovering over child
Trauma can be triggered by touch...anything that resembles the abuse or things that occurred prior to or after the abuse.


  • Anything that resembles the abuse or things that occurred prior to or after the abuse (certain physical touch, someone standing too close, petting an animal, the way someone approaches).


  • Anything that is related to the abuse, prior to the abuse or after the abuse (certain foods, alcohol, tobacco).

Including awareness of triggers with our trauma lenses

What we take for granted may be significant, a trigger to someone who has experienced trauma. I find the vastness of triggers amazing. Almost anything can have an impact on the behaviors of children or adults who have been traumatized.

Once we learn what triggers a traumatized child to respond in a specific way, we can be much more aware and sensitive to her/his environment as we work to help overcome the impact.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

NOTE: Learn more about Lakeside’s participation in a leading edge symposium on trauma-informed care for traumatized children.

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