Triggers and Flashbacks

I just hate that word. It is so violent! I wish we could use neutral language to convey the concept of something in the present stirring up past trauma. But we don’t, and it is descriptive of the process.

So . . . something in the present can bring on a partial flashback, just part of the traumatic memory. It could be a sight, a sound, a smell, or an emotion. I’ll give some examples from my own experience.

In a car, I sometimes think I see a severed arm or leg on the side of the road. It’s really a stone or a trash bag, sometimes a blown tire. Anything brown will do. Sometimes I hear faint words; somebody calling my name or phrases I can’t quite make out. And sometimes I smell things that might or might not be there. This drives me nuts because I often find it hard to tell if the smell is really in the air or if it is safely in the past.

Most of the time, I can identify the object that set off the visual flashback. It’s harder for me to figure out what triggered an auditory or olfactory (smell) flashback. A few times I have attributed it to a fleeting thought; the image of somebody I knew as a child who drank beer might have set off the sensation of the smell of beer hovering over the water in a swimming pool.

These are sensory flashbacks, and they are pretty straightforward reconstructions of something I experienced in the past. There are two other kinds of partial flashbacks which I find a little more complicated to understand.

One is emotions. If, suddenly, out of the blue, I feel something that has nothing to do with anything going on in the present, I figure it is a flashback. I usually can’t identify the trigger, at least not right away. I try not to show my feelings if I am in public because they usually aren’t appropriate to the situation.

It’s even more confusing if something that would scare anybody or make anybody angry happens but I react much more strongly than other people would. For years I thought my feelings were due completely to what had just occurred and I was a little more sensitive than others, that was all.

A psychologist once told me that if a person over-reacts in the present it means they had to under-react in the past. That makes total sense to me. The feelings I had to stuff all those years ago come swooshing out when they are triggered by something that scares me, makes me mad, or even makes me feel happy. In this case, I have to think hard to separate out how much is due to the present situation and how much is from the past, because it’s not an either/or situation.

The other kind of flashback that often puzzles me is action. I do something that is similar to something I did in the past, or something I would have loved to do back then but couldn’t. These are also called re-enactments.

The most common re-enactment I experience is trying to help somebody. I witnessed other children being hurt in the cult and wanted with all my heart to stop it, to help them get away. But I was powerless. That tremendous desire to help is still there and shows itself over and over in the present. I have worked long and hard to figure out that I am doing this and to sort out whether my help would be  co-dependent rescuing or would truly be helpful.

Now if I were the kind of person who found myself over and over again in the middle of a barroom fight — I’m not — it would be worth while asking who is the past I would have loved to punch in the nose. And if you see a child hurting animals, chances are high that they have been hurt or have been forced to hurt animals.

I never had many complete flashbacks, and I don’t have them at all now. By that I mean when the past comes back like a Technicolor movie, with intricate details. People often cannot tell that they are in the present when this happens: they believe the events in the flashbacks are happening right now. I’m not sure what determines whether a flashback is partial or complete. My guess is that it has something to do with how many parts are sharing their information at the same time. It might also have something to do with the number of different triggers that are present in the environment.

I plan to write about ways of managing triggers and flashbacks — how to use them to our advantage instead of just reacting, enduring, and suffering. Meanwhile, I hope you can relate to some of the things I have discussed here.

6 thoughts on “Triggers and Flashbacks

  1. I sent this on to a client of mine who was sexually abused as a child and she is very hard on herself for HAVING triggers and semi flashbacks. She is just now able to separate the flashback trigger from the actual event and NOW she has a chance to be more free and less reflexive. Your practical advice and lack of judgement is really lovely to send on to her.
    Karen Swenson


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