Trauma Triggers: It’s Not You It’s Your Brain
Trauma Triggers: It’s Not You It’s Your Brain

This article gives a brief overview of trauma responses and ways to reduce and manage these responses to improve overall well-being and support recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD (CPTSD).

If you or someone you love has experienced a traumatic event, this article is for you.

What triggers trauma?

“The past affects the present even without our being aware of it.” 

Francine Shapiro

Our brains are constantly making associations outside of our awareness. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. If we do not associate danger with the lion’s den, what’s to stop us from walking in? These neural associations create an automatic response to the world around us to help keep us safe. However, now that our world has fewer run-ins with lions, tigers, and bears, it doesn’t mean that our neural hardwiring has changed. For example, when I say, “Roses are Red” your following thought will most likely be, “Violets are Blue ”. Though this nursery rhyme doesn’t hold any value to our survival, it exemplifies the power of the mind to have automatic responses to external “triggers”.

External triggers to trauma can be much harder to identify than the next line of an innocent nursery rhyme. When we are exposed to a traumatic event, the event and its sensory details are stored in the memory and emotional center of our brain. The stored details of trauma can come in many forms; smells, sounds, places, objects, situations, emotional states, etc. Therefore, a combat veteran may become triggered when watching a movie depicting war. That same vet might also experience more ambiguous triggers of sitting in a restaurant with their back facing the front door or the smell of a campfire. One trigger can be a very clear association with the traumatic event, while another can be more covert. 

What are signs that I am triggered?

“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

Bessel A. van der Kolk

Our brain’s response to triggers is as instantaneous as our legs’ kicking movement response to the reflex test at the doctor’s office. When we are triggered, our brain prioritizes safety and leaves behind anything outside of immediate survival. Our autonomic nervous system kicks into gear releasing hormones and preparing the body to respond to the perceived threat. Bodily changes start to occur, such as increased blood flow to essential organs, dilation of the pupil to allow in more light, and increased oxygen to skeletal muscles, all at a moment’s notice. In this moment, you aren’t choosing how you respond to the threat, your body is choosing for you.

These physiological changes lead to one or more of the following trauma responses: 

1. The Fight Response

The fight response’s goal is to overpower the threat and regain control.

Signs of the fight response may include:

Internal Signs:

  • Body tightness and tension
  • Anger
  • Difficulty thinking/staying calm
  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Fast Breathing

 External Signs:

  • Being Argumentative
  • Glaring 
  • Intimidation/bullying
  • Physical or verbal aggression 
  • Clenching fists

2. The Flight Response

The flight response ignites when we don’t perceive the threat as a threat we can defeat, making fleeing the best outcome for our survival.

Signs of the flight response may include:

Internal Signs:

  • Feeling restless or fidgety 
  • Urges to leave the situation or end the conversation
  • Fear/Panic
  • Racing Thoughts

 External Signs:

  • Constantly moving 
  • Leaving conversations without clarity
  • Darting Eyes
  • Excessive Exercise 
  • Overscheduling to avoid downtime

3. The Freeze Response

The freeze response often occurs when fighting or fleeing isn’t a viable option for survival. The freeze response serves the purpose of disconnecting from the threatening event to reduce its impact.

Signs of the freeze response may include:

Internal signs:

  • Feeling numb or cold
  • Holding your breath
  • Feeling out of your body or environment 
  • Physical stiffness

 External Signs:

  • Difficulty expressing emotion or Monotone
  • Unable to Speak
  • Daydreaming or “Spacing Out”
  • In the more extreme cases, “Flop Response” or body collapsing 

4. The Fawn Response

The Fawn Response occurs when safety is sought after by pleasing and appeasing the perceived threat. This is the trauma response most highly associated with codependency and childhood trauma.

Signs of the fawn response may include:

Internal Signs:

  • Feeling disconnected from yourself
  • Struggling to hold boundaries 
  • Fear of saying no or “letting others down”
  • Assuming responsibility for other’s emotions

 External Signs:

  • Being overly helpful
  • Submission/people-pleasing
  • Over-apologizing or avoiding conflict 
  • Difficulty describing wants/needs

What do I do when I am triggered?

“As long as you don’t talk, you can’t deal with your shame… Going within and finding words to express yourself is a very important part of healing from trauma.” –

Bessel A. van der Kolk

Your response to perceived danger is written into the fabric of your being. All brains are hardwired with the same stress responses to serve our survival. However, those who have survived trauma have an increased likelihood of experiencing one of the above stress responses in day-to-day events. Therefore, from the outside what may look like a common disagreement with your spouse may feel like a tiger approaching you to your body. Additionally, though we all experience the automatic stress response to slam on the breaks when a car suddenly stops in front of us, someone with PTSD may take longer for their body to recover and may continue to feel on edge even after traffic has cleared. 

Though we cannot control the activation of the flight-fight-freeze-fawn response, we can take action to manage it when it arises. Knowing your signs and triggers helps to demystify the response and empowers you to intervene and regain control of your brain’s alarm system.

The following tips are provided to support the reduction of the flight-fight-freeze-fawn response:

1. Breathe

Deep breathing sends signals to the brain that the body is safe. Utilizing meditation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and breathwork helps regulate your emotions and central nervous system. If you are new to these practices, start with simple breathing techniques, such as paced breathing: Breathing from your belly- inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale for 7 seconds. Repeat at least three times.

2. Move 

Body movement helps decrease stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Getting out of the stressful environment and outside for a walk can help clear your mind. Also, having a physical fitness routine helps reduce the build-up of stress hormones over time. Practices such as Yoga and Tai Chi are found to improve the body-mind connection and support recovery after stressful events. 

3. Connect

Human connection creates healing neural connections. Reaching out to trusted support can be an anchor amidst an emotional storm and improve our sense of safety. When our relationship is the trigger, it is essential to communicate our experience and repair the relationship once our brain has returned to homeostasis. Relationships are key to both our survival and our recovery. Taking the time to cultivate trusting relationships is essential for the recovery of stress responses and PTSD. 

Trauma responses can be overwhelming and difficult to identify and manage alone. If you realize you or your partner may struggle with PTSD or CPTSD, reach out to us, we can help.


Siegel, D. J. (2015). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Guilford Publications 

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.  

Walker, P. (2013). ComplexPTSD : from Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

Shapiro, F. (2013). Getting past your past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. Rodale.

Anderson, A. (2023, June 27). Combat wildfire smoke issues. Mke Mindbody Wellness.