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When Your Sensitivity to Sound Triggers a Trauma Response

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Car door slams, garage door closings, footstep sound coming toward you, fireworks; These are just a few sounds that trigger some individuals to recall past trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder affecting the brain that can occur in any individual, regardless of whether or not they have ever seen combat. Around 10% of U.S. adults experience the disorder in their lifetime, and women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with it, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Many of these women reported that their trauma comes from experiences with sexual assault or another kind of serious physical assault altercation.

• What is PTSD?

PTSD and its cousin complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), which is caused by extended periods of repeated trauma, are generally caused by some form of traumatic event that the individual either observes or has happen to them. It also can be experienced by veterans of war combat. The disorder can manifest itself in hypervigilance as the individual feels as though they must constantly be aware of their surroundings so the trauma won’t take place again, sleeping disorders as they can’t block the mental images from disrupting their rest, dissociating during their day-to-day interactions, feelings of altered memory and emotional numbness. The disorder affects people by their remembrance of the incident in sleep or when awake as well as if they are exposed to some kind of trigger.

A trigger can be a sound, an individual, a song or visual media content that involves a similar traumatic incident happening to a character whether in a book, film, TV show, etc. PTSD is a frightening psychological disorder that, unless professionally treated by a counselor or psychologist, leaves individuals feeling numb, vulnerable and alone.

The way sound trigger individuals suffering from PTSD is an arena of much psychological study, particularly in how the brain processes the triggering sound and how it associates it internally with trauma that could have happened recently or years earlier. In a study conducted by the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology and Centre for Human Brain Health, researchers found that when individuals with PTSD and individuals who had experienced similar trauma but did not have PTSD heard a standard 1000 Hz tone each second followed by a slightly altered or deviant tone at 1200 Hz, those with PTSD noticed the difference in the tone.

This meant that individuals with PTSD had brains trained to “over-process any kind of change in their environment” — a kind of auditory hypervigilance. Auditory triggers are very difficult to keep at bay, since for many sounds we come into contact with, we do not first get a warning. While some can be avoided such as those in a film, other triggers simply enter into our days unannounced. For those with PTSD, those triggers could mean a once-great day transforming into a living nightmare until the onslaught of memories finally subsides.

If you experience some symptoms of PTSD or have recently experienced something traumatic in your life and identify with some of the things I’ve mentioned above, consider conducting an online screening for PTSD and taking those results to a psychologist. Sharing your triggers with others can make you feel ashamed at first, but I encourage you to tell others what you’re going through. If they are your true friends and love you for being you, they will be able to help you just by being present in your life and someone you can rely on as you heal. If you’re a friend or loved one of someone with PTSD, be compassionate and understanding with them and share with them what they may be triggered by if you all are in an environment that may make them feel more vulnerable.

As someone with C-PTSD, my found family has been supportive of my needs and has alerted me when there may be something in the environment that we’re in together which may trigger me. I particularly recall New Year’s Eve celebrations this past year when staying with my partner at their parents’ home in Georgia. As someone with open shooting trauma, having my partner be at my side to hold my hand, coach me through deep breathing exercises and build a blanket and pillow fort around while the popping and cracking sounds went off around the neighborhood.

No one should ever have to be alone, particularly when isolation can aggravate many different kinds of psychological disorders, not just PTSD.

You are not alone in this world, regardless of the trauma you’ve experienced.

Getty Images photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Originally published: June 1, 2021
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