This factsheet explains what triggers and flashbacks are and how you can manage them. If you are experiencing triggers and flashbacks, you are not alone. There is support available for you.
What are triggers and flashbacks?
Flashbacks are the sudden reliving of trauma memories. You experience the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations of a traumatic event as though it is happening now, rather than in the past.
Triggers are anything which our mind links to a trauma and causes us to react as if the trauma is happening now. Triggers can be words, symbols, situations, items, sounds, smells, colours - and more.
One of the most challenging things for victim-survivors is when ordinary day-to-day experiences or sensations trigger flashbacks. This can be frightening, confusing and overwhelming. Getting to know our own triggers takes time, effort and patience with ourselves.
“Coming to terms with flashbacks – understanding what they are, learning how to manage them, and eventually figuring out how to reduce them – has been a cornerstone of my recovery. Flashbacks are horrendous – yes. But it can help if we reframe them as signs of our sanity, that our brains know that something is not right, and at least when they happen we can take some tiny crumbs of comfort from the fact that our brain wants to heal. Flashbacks, and the triggers that cause them, can be guides on our therapeutic recovery journey.” –Carolyn Spring
Being triggered and having flashbacks is never your fault. It does not mean that you are weak. It does not mean that you ‘should have’ gotten over it. Triggers and flashbacks are part of the normal human reaction to trauma.
What is the impact of triggers and flashbacks?
Many victim-survivors will experience flashbacks - and they can happen even when we are feeling happy or relaxed. Triggers cause your brain’s warning system to go off whenever it detects a potential threat or a reminder of the past.
You might have clear memories of the assault or the perpetrator.
You might have thoughts that automatically come up, like “It’s not safe here” or “I can’t trust anyone”.
You might not have clear memories or thoughts, but instead feel overwhelmed, scared, angry, or ashamed.
You might have physical reactions in your body, like sweating, shaking, or a fast heartbeat.
All these responses are normal. You are not alone. There are things you can do to help manage and reduce flashbacks.
How can we manage triggers and flashbacks in the moment?
Flashbacks can feel very frightening and overwhelming. For some of us, flashbacks may be experienced as dissociation - feeling disconnected from yourself or your surroundings.
The most helpful approach in the moment is to recognise that you have been triggered and are having a flashback. If you have clear memories of the sexual assault, you will know and understand that is what is happening.
If you are experiencing thoughts, feelings and sensations that may be the result of being triggered, it is helpful to assume that your mind and body are reacting to a trigger, even if you don’t know what it is. Remind yourself that this is a totally natural part of trauma.
After recognising and reminding, there are two main ways to respond. If it’s safe for you, you can explore the experience more, reflecting on where in your body you feel.
the reactions, and what events, thoughts, feelings and sensations tell you that you are triggered.
You can talk and think yourself through it and might want to prepare ‘Thought Cards’ to have with you:
‘This is a flashback. It won’t kill me – even though my body is reacting as if it will.’
‘It’s a sign of my sanity – my brain is trying to protect me.’
‘This is a memory – even though it feels like it’s happening now
If it’s not the right time to ‘think yourself through it’, you can distract yourself by focusing on or doing something different. Breathe slowly and deeply, move to a place where you feel safer and more comfortable, or try some grounding techniques.
How can we manage triggers and flashbacks after the moment?
There are five main coping strategies for management and reduction of triggers and flashbacks:
know your triggers so you can reduce your exposure to them and feel better prepared if you are exposed
identify early warning signs, noticing what you were thinking and feeling just before the flashback
learn ‘grounding techniques’ which are ways to connect to the present moment using our five senses
be compassionate towards yourself and do things that soothe or nurture
reach out for support - talk to a trusted person after the event, or take a trusted person with you to an event you know may be triggering
If you decide to seek counselling or support, managing triggers and flashbacks can be a central part of trauma counselling.
Where to get more information?
Most survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse will feel overwhelmed and helpless when we are triggered or have flashbacks. You don’t have to go through this alone. There is support available if you have been sexually assaulted.
SASS acknowledges and pays respect to the Traditional Owners of the land we work on, the muwinina and palawa people. We acknowledge the Tasmanian Aboriginal community as the ongoing custodians of lutruwita (Tasmania) and pay our respects to Elders, past and present.