Trauma isn’t static. The events that cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are fixed in time, but their aftermath can spill into the years and decades that follow. The past can impact the present in ways you can’t expect or anticipate, making you feel on edge in safe spaces and in the company of people you love and trust.
We asked people living with PTSD what their ‘weirdest’ triggers were. Their triggers included crowds and strawberries, ceiling tiles and Pine-Sol. Many of their triggers were everyday objects and situations, driving home how difficult it can be to navigate the world when you live with the effects of trauma.
If PTSD has affected the way you live your life, know that you’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Health, about 6.8% of American adults will experience PTSD during their lifetimes. And while your triggers may seem strange to you, there’s nothing “weird” about recovering from trauma. If reading this is hard for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Mighty’s community of Trauma Survivors to get support from others who understand.
Here are TK of our community’s “weird” PTSD triggers:
1. Certain Smells
“The smell of pine concentrate disinfectant in a workplace. I ran outside, heart pounding, feeling like I was going to be sick. Very distressed. My boss said I was weird. Years later, I pieced together how it connected to my childhood trauma. Many different fragments from memories.” — Xanthe W.
“The smell or even the thought of the smell of Play-Doh is a major trigger for me. It throws me immediately into flashbacks. I love it, but can’t handle the memories and emotions associated with it.” — Sarah H.
“The smell of wood burning and any kind of material that is a very light blue… I will see a vision/flashback to where it happened and I will also see the person who did the unspeakable things… Many times after the first flashback it will bring on many more, also I will start to sweat, can’t catch my breath and my heart beats like it is going to come out of my chest…” — Katrina C. H.
2. Leaving Home without a Charger
“Not having a phone charger, even if my phone has a good charge. I almost died in a blizzard several years ago and couldn’t contact anyone due to my phone not being able to hold a charge. Now I usually have a wall charger and a portable charger, even if I’m only going a few minutes away from home.” — Jordan G.
3. Healthy Relationships
“Honestly, when everything is going right in a relationship I’m in. When I was in an abusive relationship, whenever that happened I was bound to either get tremendously berated for something or hit for no reason other than me just being there. Whenever I lay my head on my current partner, I’ll usually break down and freak out because I’m so scared that he’ll hurt me…” — Aaron N. S.
“Anytime I get close to a man romantically. Also smells and being around places I used to go with that person.” — Noelle N.
“Being in busy places. I have a constant feeling of being ‘on edge’ and [have] very bad paranoia. I hear voices due to my PTSD and I feel like everyone can tell I hear them and that they are all judging/laughing at me. I barely leave the house now, bar school runs and the local [grocery store].” — Toni E.
“Large crowds trigger my PTSD… far more likely to have a panic attack if I’m stuck in a large group.” — Abigail K.
“I can’t handle large amounts of people.” — Robert A. S.
“Strawberries. My ex would use strawberry scented items such as lotion, candles and wine before he would attack me.” — Angie S.
“Being around children, I was abused as a child and I am always reminded when I’m around children.” — Kay R.
“This is a new one for me. Seeing a girl on a mans lap in a picture. It just happened yesterday and it brought back new repressed memories.” — Ashley P.
“Having kids! I constantly worry about the same thing happening to them that happened to me. It’s terrifying.” — Hannah L.
7. The Smell (and Sounds) of Alcohol
“The sound of ice cubes in a wine glass. Makes me feel nervous and shaken up.” — Kimberly Ella B.
“Mine is the sound of a can being opened due to my mother being an alcoholic. It doesn’t even have to be a drink with alcohol just any can. It makes me cringe.” — Lupe L.
“The smell of alcohol, especially on someone’s breath. My dad was an alcoholic, I have a lot of bad memories (and probably many more repressed ones) of his drinking and his breath always used to smell so heavily of alcohol. I can’t stand it, I usually have to leave the room. It sucks because it makes things like dating and social events difficult, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t drink.” — Liam G. D.
8. ‘Mary Poppins’ Movie
“One film. ‘Mary Poppins.’ It’s a bad association problem, but I actually have to leave the room and not go back in until it’s finished.” — Becky T.
9. Cologne or Perfume
“The smell of Irish Spring soap or Old Spice aftershave. It can send into flight mode and take me right back to the traumatic incident I associate the smell with. Pounding heart, racing mind, the intense need to run away and lock a door… It has become better over the years, but there are times when it rears its ugly head.” — Tania T.
“Certain colognes; Brute, Cool Water for men. Men who invade my personal space. My mother, putting her hands on her hips with a big intake of breath. Certain types of pain; gynecological, sharp acute kidney pain. Having to ask for anything, from anyone.” — Lola J.
10. Good Days
“Quiet, when things are calm, when things are going well. The opposite as well, but the more chaos the calmer I am especially compared to calm/quiet/safe.” — Denise M.
“On the days I’m actually having a good day and a happy mind, I, all the sudden, realize that and then boom anxiety hits hard.” — Shelley H.
“Someone/anyone whistling for any reason. It causes me to tense up and sparks an anxiety response. I start sweating, feeling trapped, my hair stands up on the back of my neck and my ears focus on and can only hear that sound. Sometimes it makes me angry or causes me to have to stop what I’m doing and leave the place or activity. 99% of the time it will trigger a flashback, sometimes a memory one that plays almost like a an old view-finder toy, clicking through the still shots. Most often though it causes an emotional flashback.” — Lacey F.
“Driving. I’ve been in a few car crashes… Now that I commute an hour and a half one way to work, I have had moments where I go by a semi and blank.” — Ashley D.
“Driving near, adjacent to, or around semi-trucks in a close proximity. My step father was in a horrific semi-truck accident (but walked away from it with just scratches and bruises) which I was witness to the aftermath of when I was approximately 16. That’s usually my largest trigger.” — Ashley B.
13. Taking a Shower
“The sound of the shower running. I go into a full-blown panic attack. Racing rapid thoughts, my heartbeat increases. I feel like I’m moving a million miles an hour, but I’m not. It’s weird. When I was pregnant with my son I was on hospital bed rest. I got into the shower and started having a seizure. When I was able to get out, I couldn’t remember how to put my clothes on.” — Melissa L.
“I got sick and my new boyfriend told me to get in the shower. I was laying in the water and started having a panic attack and I got out so fast saying how sorry I was for taking so long and please don’t be mad and my boyfriend had no idea what was wrong with me.” — Samantha T.
14. Certain Noises
“Sounds of racing video games. It sends my heart into ludicrous speed and my lungs can’t expand it’s like I’m there again… and there terrifies me to my core.” — Amber A.
“Electronic noises like beeping.” — Cher F.
“The bell at a middle/high school. I was a teacher. Didn’t teach for years. Went back after being in an emotionally abusive relationship. Didn’t last three days. I couldn’t figure out why I was so on edge/scared until the fire alarm at Walmart went off and I felt the same panic/fear. I wanted to teach there so bad, but it terrifies me.” — Damaris G.
“Compliments. I can’t handle them, I always feel like there’s an ulterior motive and I start picking apart what it could be. Then I get sweaty palms, my eye will twitch and I get short of breath. If I can’t either cut off the conversation or disable it with something self deprecating, I will have a full blown panic attack or dissociate.” — Nat C.
“Someone complimenting my appearance, especially if it’s a guy. I know it sounds nuts, but there’s just something about it that starts me down a spiral of fear.” — Megan G.
“Vacuuming. When I hear it sometimes I flash back to when my mother was forced to clean the house cause my dad yelled it was a pigsty and she would smash the metal end of the hose on coffee tables and walls and furniture and once my little brother.” — Joyce D.
“Someone vacuuming. I can vacuum but can’t be in the house if someone else is. Goes back to when my mum would hurt me when she vacuumed when I was small.” — Karen J.
“My counselor tried breathing exercises with me. I have no idea why but I had a total breakdown. Still don’t know why.” — Susan B.
“The sound of gasping for air. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe. And I’m gasping for air.” — Elisa N.
“Coughing. If i see or hear someone cough or choke, I immediately go on the alert and have a strong urge to run and make sure they are OK. It triggers my anxiety very badly. As an adult, I realize I can’t go from zero to 100 like that, but have to make a conscious effort to talk myself down from it.” — Hailey Ann H.
“When my daughter has a cough.” — Amy M.
“My husband just got a pair of boots for work, turns out they’re the same ones my abuser wore. I cant even look at the boots, my husband keeps them hidden for me which is amazing. The thing is nothing ever happened regarding the boots, it’s just that I made such a strong association between that person and those boots because he wore them every single day for years.” — Steph R.
“My work shoes. Makes me think of my dad and make me feel like I am him.” — Brooke Emily N,
“Sometimes ketchup will trigger me. Because of the color. It makes me have flashbacks.” — “Roxanne B. C.”
“The color purple in certain situations.” — Ravyn E.
21. When People are Nice to You
“Someone being nice to me just because they want to. It makes me feel like they expect something from me or will expect more later on when I have accepted them into my bubble. I am a people pleaser because of my PTSD, so when I like someone I am willing to do a lot for them. I have been burned before and I am scared to be burned again.” — Vee D.
“Wringing out washcloths! I remember getting screamed at for not squeezing the cloths enough to get all the water out (guess my 7-year-old hands weren’t that strong), so when I wiped the counters they were left wet, I kept having to bring the cloth back to my caregiver to check if it was wrung out enough, and eventually they ‘helped me’ squeeze the water out. Initially I’d just dissociate, until I started working at a job where I’d have to wring out 20-30 cloths a day. EMDR has helped a lot with this trigger.” — Stephanie Lynne
“Dishes. My cat’s life was threatened growing up if I forgot to do the dishes. Even after a long dance practice when I didn’t even eat there, it was still my responsibility to do the dishes. They were thrown at me. Now if there is a loud sound of plates or if anyone else does dishes I will have a panic attack.” — Mia M.
“Making the bed used to, but thankfully I’ve worked past that one.” — Kerry H.
23. The Way Someone Talks
“When my daughter speaks to me exactly the way her father did. I left him when she was 4 months old. She has had little contact with him. But it terrifies me and gives me flashbacks of what a miserable life I lived with such trauma for so many years until she came along and I was brave enough to leave. I find myself lost in my mind. Staring blankly with no understanding of what’s going on around me. I feel numb.” — Kylie S.
“When someone starts talking to me in a different tone, or will go without talking to me. As an adult I know people have good and bad days but as someone who dealt with mental and emotional abuse, I automatically think I did something wrong and start shutting down.” — Alicia H.
24. Ice Cream Trucks
“The sound of the ice cream truck. One of the many times my ex-husband beat me, the ice cream truck was passing by and my eldest son at the time was a baby and he was screaming and crying in fear. Even though it happened about 28 years ago… the sound of it leaves me frozen with fear and the memories of abuse flood back.” — Maggie P.H.
“Mobile phones and taking it to the bathroom, especially for a long period of time. It sends me into fight or flight mode, insecurities rise and I become enraged/anxious with the shakes and certain they are concealing something or cheating on me. The more one tries to hide, cover or conceal their phone from me, the more certain I am that they are hiding something and the downward spiral begins.” — Jess L.
“Having my phone locked when I am home alone. It makes my OCD act up and my hands shake. I have to get my phone unlocked and to the phone app.” — Rheanna A.
“A certain ringtone.” — Melissa K.
26. Doctors or Other Medical Professionals
“Educators and medical personnel.” — Christina Marie W.
“The dentist, the smell of vinegar, the mentioning of lice (I’m a Pre-K teacher, so hearing about it is a thing) and Christmas is one I’m handling better but sometimes it is still unbearable when something triggers my mind.” — Ashley C.
“The smell of menthol cigarettes sends my fear receptors through the roof.” — Diana M.
“Doors. Being locked behind doors, being raised in a house that literally had no bedroom bathroom or shower doors… nothing good happens behind a closed door.” — Kimberly K. C.
“Locked doors. Even if I know the code to exit. The door looking behind me give me shivers.” — Lorena D.
29. Your Birthday
“My sister was killed just after my birthday, and every year on my birthday, and the weeks following, my mind and body freak out. It’s like clockwork.” — Kelly W.
30. Ceiling Tiles
“Ceiling tiles. I look up and see ceiling tiles, I am back there in that room, counting the tiles, waiting for it to be over so I can go back to my dorm. When I am aware again, that this is now and not then, I force myself to breathe deep breaths and find the now things. Now I am 43, not 18. Now I work at the fire department, not the computer lab. Now I see snow on the ground. Now I smell the bakery downtown. Writing this post made my hands cold, so I had to go rinse them under warm water. PTSD does not just go away. We live with it.” — Emily V.
31. Receiving a Gift
“Good surprises/unexpected gifts — I get overwhelmed with guilt and shame because prizes were used as bribes in my childhood.” — Jodie P.
If your PTSD is triggered by “weird” things, you’re not the only one. Please be gentle with yourself if you see yourself in these comments — it takes so much resilience to keep going day after day when you’re living with the effects of trauma. If you ever need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to reach out.