trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback
transporting the person back to the event of her/his original
Triggers are very personal; different things
trigger different people. The survivor may begin to avoid situations
and stimuli that she/he thinks triggered the flashback. She/he will react to this flashback, trigger
with an emotional intensity similar to that at the time of the trauma.
A person's triggers are activated through one or
more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and
The senses identified
as being the most common to trigger someone are sight and sound, followed by
touch and smell, and taste close behind. A combination of the senses
is identified as well, especially in situations that strongly resemble the original
trauma. Although triggers are varied and diverse, there are often
- Often someone who resembles the
abuser or who has similar traits or objects (ie. clothing, hair color,
- Any situation where someone else is
being abused (ie. 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 (ie.
alcohol, piece of furniture, time of year).
- Any place or situation where the
abuse took place (ie. specific locations in a house, holidays, family
events, social settings).
- Anything that sounds like anger (ie.
raised voices, arguments, bangs and thumps, something breaking).
- Anything that sounds like pain or
fear (ie. 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 (ie. sirens, foghorns, music, cricket, chirping,
car door closing).
- Anything that resembles sounds that
the abuser made (ie. whistling, footsteps, pop of can opening, tone of
- Words of abuse (ie. cursing, labels,
put-downs, specific words used).
- Anything that resembles the smell of
the abuser (ie. tobacco, alcohol, drugs, after shave, perfume).
- Any smells that resemble the place or
situation where the abuse occurred (ie. food cooking ,wood, odors,
- Anything that resembles the abuse or
things that occurred prior to or after the abuse (ie. certain physical
touch, someone standing too close, petting an animal, the way someone
- Anything that is related to the
abuse, prior to the abuse or after the abuse (ie. certain foods,
Flashbacks are memories of
past traumas. They may take the form of pictures, sounds, smells,
body sensations, feelings, or the lack of them (numbness).
Many times there is no actual
visual or auditory memory with flashbacks. One may have a sense of
panic, of being trapped, or a feeling of powerlessness with no memory
stimulating it. These experiences can also happen in dreams.
During the initial crisis, the survivor had to
insulate her/himself from the emotional and physical horrors of the
trauma. In order to survive, that insulated part of the self
remained isolated, unable to express the feelings and thoughts of that
time. It is as though the survivor put that part of her/his self
into a time capsule, which later surfaces and comes out as a flashback,
feeling just as intense in the present as it did during the crisis.
When that part comes out, the survivor is
experiencing the past as if it were happening today. The intense feelings
and body sensations occurring are frightening because the
feelings/sensations are not related to the reality of the present and many
times seem to come from nowhere.
The survivor may begin to think she/he is
crazy and is afraid of telling anyone of these experiences. The
survivor may feel out of control and at the mercy of her/his
Flashbacks are unsettling and may feel
overwhelming because the survivor becomes so caught up in the trauma that
she/he forgets about the safety and security of the present moment.
What Helps -
Tips for Survivors
1. Tell yourself that you are having
2. Remind yourself that the worst is over.
The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories of the past.
The actual event has already occurred and you survived. Now it is the time
to let out the terror, rage, hurt, and/or panic. Now is the time to honor
3. Get grounded. This means
stamping your feet on the ground to remind yourself that you have feet and
can get away now if you need to. (There may have been times before
when you could not get away, now you can.) Being aware
of all five senses can also help you ground yourself.
4. Breathe. When we get scared we
stop normal breathing. As a result our body begins to panic from the
lack of oxygen. Lack of oxygen in itself causes a great deal of
panic feelings; pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint,
shakiness, and dizziness. When we breathe deeply enough, a lot of
the panic feeling can decrease. Breathing deeply means putting your
hand on your diaphragm, pushing against your hand, and then exhaling so
the diaphragm goes in.
5. Reorient to the present. Begin
to use your five senses in the present. Look around and see the
colors in the room, the shapes of things, the people near, etc.
Listen to the sounds in the room: your breathing, traffic, birds,
people, cars, etc. Feel your body and what is touching it: your
clothes, your own arms and hands, the chair, or the floor supporting
6. Get in touch with your need for boundaries.
Sometimes when we are having a flashback we lose the sense of where we
leave off and the world begins; as if we do not have skin. Wrap
yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or stuffed animal, go to bed, sit in
a closet, any way that you can feel yourself truly protected from the
7. Get support. Depending on your
situation you may need to be alone or may want someone near you. In
either case it is important that your close ones know about flashbacks so
they can help with the process, whether that means letting you be by
yourself or being there.
8. Take the time to recover.
Sometimes flashbacks are very powerful. Give yourself time to make the
transition form this powerful experience. Don't expect yourself to jump
into adult activities right away. Take a nap, a warm bath, or some
quiet time. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Do
not beat yourself up for having a flashback.
9. Honor your experience.
Appreciate yourself for having survived that horrible time. Respect
your body's need to experience a full range of feelings.
10. Be patient. It takes time
to heal the past. It takes time to learn appropriate ways of
taking care of yourself, of being an adult who has feelings, and
developing effective ways of coping in the here and now.