About triggers and flashbacks

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.  

Many victim-survivors find grounding techniques helpful when dealing with triggers and flashbacks.  You can find lots of ideas online including Rape Crisis UK Grounding Tips and Blue Knot Grounding Ideas but it can take time to work out what works for you.

There are several really helpful resources on triggers and flashbacks:

Carolyn Spring (www.carolynspring.com)  is a survivor of complex trauma. She has written about managing flashbacks and about managing triggers.

Blue Knot (www.blueknot.org.au) has information about trauma triggers and flashbacks for people with complex trauma.

Very Well Mind (www.verywellmind.com) has a blog about coping with flashbacks that includes information on grounding techniques.

Fiona Rogerson (www.fionarogerson.com.au) is a trauma counsellor who specialises in working with trauma that can be caused, or triggered, by difficult experiences of giving birth. She explains the difference between flashbacks experienced as physical sensations (somatic flashbacks) and flashbacks experienced as strong emotions (emotional flashbacks).

South London Rape Crisis has developed a one-page guide for coping with flashbacks after rape.

Janae Elisabeth (www.traumageek.com) is a researcher and storyteller who has developed a helpful way to understand triggers.

Triggers and flashbacks

PDF document - 270 KB