Dealing with Triggers and Flashbacks

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is a complicated and life-altering mental health challenge formed when a person is under extreme distress with no escape.

Many symptoms accompany CPTSD, with perhaps the most painful being the horrific flashbacks one experiences. This article will tackle flashbacks, the stress-related triggers that cause them, and methods used to defeat them.

Explaining Triggers

Triggers are anything that causes you to recall an experience, such as sights, smells, colors, songs, etc. These triggers are windows to the past, allowing it to flood the survivor’s consciousness.

Here is a brief story to illustrate triggers and how they influence the formation of flashbacks.

A woman named Cathy moved into a new town and knew no one except a few people at her place of employment. On the weekend of Christmas, Cathy has been invited to a party, and she goes. Upon arrival, Cathy is met at the door by her new friend and led into the house. Once inside, Cathy’s senses are assaulted by pleasant odors, such as the smell of freshly baked bread.

Two years later, Cathy walks down the street when she sees a new bakery has opened. Cathy goes inside, and the odor of freshly baked bread assails her. Suddenly, Cathy is transported back to the day she attended the Christmas party and had a wonderful time. Cathy feels she is back in her friend’s house for a few moments and finds herself smiling once she returns to the now.

Cathy had been triggered by the smell of the bread and flashed back to that crisp December day.

A person who has experienced trauma will experience negative emotions, including intense fear and the need to escape. Triggers lead to flashbacks, such as how Cathy in our illustration flashed to the pleasant experience she had at the Christmas party.

However, if the memories that flood back are horrific, your body will respond physically and mentally as though the perpetrator was still hurting you.

What are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks happen when memories of trauma in the past feel like they are happening in the now. During a flashback, the victim is transported to the moment when the trauma occurred, making it extraordinarily difficult to maintain contact with reality.

Often, in a flashback, survivors might feel that the perpetrator of their trauma is physically present, having been triggered by a random connection to the past through their senses. For instance, this author was traumatized by someone who wore a specific brand of men’s cologne while drinking beer. The scent of the cologne he wore can send me reeling into the past.

There are methods to help you if you find yourself in the middle of a flashback, including:

Deep breathing. Slowly take a deep breath in and exhale, slowly paying attention to how the air feels as it fills your lungs and the relief you feel from the release of that air. Deep breathing will not only allow you to reconnect with your body in the present, but it will also slow your body’s fight or flight response.

Remind yourself that you are experiencing a flashback. This method may seem a no-brainer, but it is difficult to do when your body is in fight-or-flight mode. Tell yourself that you are safe now and that what you are sensing happened in the past.

Employ all your senses. Look about you and list the items in the room, count the furniture, breathe in a comforting aroma, and listen to the surrounding noises. Do whatever it takes to employ all five of your senses to help ground you back in the here and now.

This list is not all-inclusive, as there are hundreds of methods to ground yourself so you can escape a flashback.

Ending Our Time Together

Stress is a significant contributor to triggering flashbacks and negative feelings about oneself. Stress makes everyone more vulnerable to experiencing triggers, especially those who have experienced complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Experiencing stress leads to many health problems and should be lowered as much as possible.

Triggers are sights, smells, tastes, touches, or sounds that are similar or the same as those survivors experienced that are connected to a traumatic event. While they are highly disturbing, flashbacks are ghosts from the past that are defeated by grounding oneself in the present.

There are at least four steps you can take to help you cope with triggers and flashbacks.

This month (May) has been mental health awareness month. I hope you have done something nice for yourself to help you feel your best. Remember, every day is a time to work on and improve your mental condition. Practice taking care of yourself and remember, that someone cares for you.

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.