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Tips for Veterans to Manage Sensory Overload and Triggers

Nick at a firework display.
Warrior Nick Morrison enjoys a fireworks display with one of his children. Some veterans find fireworks trigger a stress response. Other common triggers include crowds, certain objects and odors.

People often commemorate certain festivities with fireworks, whether celebrating the Fourth of July or ringing in the New Year. Typically, this leads to reminders to have empathy for military personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder, as the noise from fireworks could be triggering.

But triggers are more than brightly colored explosions in the sky.

A trigger is a sensory reminder of a traumatic experience that can cause painful memories to resurface or evoke intense emotions or physical responses. Triggers vary per person but include people, places, objects, sounds, smells, and even weather and times of year.

“Anyone can have adverse reactions to almost anything based on their personal experiences,” said Nick Morrison, a Marine Corps veteran, who shared that even though it’s been years since his deployment to Iraq, he is still affected by certain things. “Fireworks do not personally bother me, but they may be significant for others. It’s the sound of a helicopter and large crowds that cause me to go on alert.”

Nick admits he would avoid certain situations purposefully to reduce the risk of becoming triggered. After attending several Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) events and learning more about support available to help veterans manage their mental health, Nick realized he could benefit from participation in Warrior Care Network, an accelerated treatment program focused on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I learned that it’s natural to want to avoid reminders of painful life experiences, but it is important to expose ourselves to situations and push through so we know how to manage when we unexpectedly find ourselves transported back to a time or place and are overcome with emotions or feelings,” said Nick.

With that education, Nick says he no longer lets his PTSD control his daily activities. He now enjoys activities he’d previously avoided, such as speaking to large groups of people as a member of the WWP™ Warriors Speak team and taking his kids to Disney World.

“I still become triggered, but it’s much less than in the past,” said Nick. “Now, when something occurs, I have the words to say what is happening to me rather than internalize it. This really helps me to tame the feelings and decompress.”

Nick – and several other WWP warriors – offer advice on what helps them manage triggers and tips for loved ones.

Educate Others

Have an honest conversation with friends and family before a potentially stressful activity. “It may be uncomfortable, but planning ahead and letting others know what happens when you encounter a trigger and get to a negative headspace is important, Nick said. “How can they help you? What grounding techniques will help you self-soothe, or what can they do to help bring you down and lower your heart rate?”

Be Flexible and Adjust Your Schedule

Marine Corps veteran Nelson Lorenzo, who now works as a WWP Talk program manager, often reminds others that sometimes, a change of scenery can help quell the effects of a trigger.

Nelson recalls being at a theme park with his family when he saw a large group enter an attraction they planned to visit. He suddenly felt uneasy and tense. “The thoughts crossing my mind, all the scenarios, concerns for my family’s safety, my anxiety rapidly increased.”

To help alleviate his stress, Nelson suggested they return later in the day when it would be less crowded.

Make Intentional Choices

Bill Geiger knows that triggers – and the intensity of his reaction to them – may change based on the environment or setting.

“While there is always a chance that something might be triggering, it might not be every time,” said Bill. “Something that triggers a feeling or response today might not have been triggering for me last month.”

Bill says he will try to remove himself from a situation if he feels stressed, but to limit potential reactions, he is more intentional and mindful when making plans. 

“I didn’t go to concerts for over a decade. I still don't frequent them often, but now, if my wife and I go, we will strategically pick seats and get there early to find our seats and get situated before the large crowds show up,” he said.

Offer an Alternative

Taniki and her family

Taniki and her family find alternative activities to do together.

Veteran Taniki Richard values spending quality time with her family, so a few years ago, when her two sons asked her to play a video game with them, she happily accepted. “But they failed to consider the type of game they lovingly encouraged me to play,” she said.

“Very quickly, I discovered it triggered my post-traumatic stress responses. My palms were sweating, my heart rate elevated, and before I knew it, anxiety set in during what should have been good laughs and bonding time,” Taniki explained.

“I had to tell them that mommy couldn’t play the game with them again because it wasn’t good for my mental health. They got sad, and I had to sit down with them and explain that in a family, sometimes, there are things that you need to do to support your mommy or daddy, and sometimes there are things they do to support you. Then we came up with other things to do together.”

Be Prepared and Pack Accordingly

Burning trash or oil, diesel fuel, and other acrid smells can be common triggers for warriors. For Beth King, a former Army soldier, driving certain roads when she lived in Texas was a significant challenge. “I found it hard to stay present when a certain smell was there. I would start to obsess when memories started to ruminate in my head,” said Beth, who tried everything from gum to essential oils to calm her olfactory nerves.

“Keep trying things until you find what works. Now I carry a scented inhaler that I found is strong enough to push the smells out. It’s in my bag, in my car. I always have it,” she said.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for (More) Help

Marine veteran Dan Miller has a list of things that sometimes cause him a physical, emotional, or mental reaction. Though he relies greatly on his service dog Rocky, he said the key to long-term success is being open about what techniques work, what doesn’t, and when you need additional assistance.

“I’ve gotten better in dealing with things thanks to lessons learned from Wounded Warrior Project, through therapy and with the help of medication, but my trauma will always exist,” Dan said.

When she feels overwhelmed, Taniki asks herself: “Am I having a bad day, or is this an indicator that I need support?”

Family Members Can Get Triggered, Too

Discussing PTSD or other mental health issues has often been stigmatized, but openly addressing challenges fosters healing and growth, explained Omy Emami, an Air Force veteran who became the primary caregiver for her husband, Nima, after he was medically retired.

A former mental health counselor, Omy thought she was well-prepared to help her husband while managing her own needs. 

“After years of working with clients, hearing their stories, and walking with them through their pain, I was surprised when one day, while helping my husband, I suddenly noticed symptoms of my own begin to surface,” said Omy.

Emami family

Omy (left), with her two daughters and husband Nima.

“Initially, I found myself becoming restless, hyper-vigilant, and paranoid. But eventually, depression took over, and it was so overwhelming that it paralyzed me to the point where I could no longer function or get out of bed.”

Secondary trauma symptoms are common among caregivers and loved ones of warriors.

As a mother of two young girls, Omy realized she needed help to ensure the vitality of her family. “Taking that first step is hard, but recognizing how your loved one’s journey affects you and your family – and what assistance is available – can only help to ensure you all have a better quality of life going forward.”

 

Read more about WWP’s resources and programs for supporting mental health and wellness.

 

Contact: Cynthia Weiss – Public Relations, cweiss@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.738.2589

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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