Flashbacks and Triggers Can Be Worse Than the Trauma Itself

So much of understanding trauma is understanding the nature of flashbacks that are triggered. For anyone with a trauma history, you can feel like a victim to the sensory memories your brain has stored from your trauma and how, against your will and without your permission, you are suddenly transported back in time where you re-experience those memories.

Bessel van der Kolk said it well in his outstanding book, The Body Keeps the Score. He says: “Flashbacks and reliving are in some ways worse than the trauma itself. A traumatic event has a beginning and an end— at some point it is over. But for people with PTSD, a flashback can occur at any time, whether they are awake or asleep. There is no way of knowing when it’s going to occur again or how long it will last. People who suffer from flashbacks often organize their lives around trying to protect against them. They may compulsively go to the gym to pump iron, but find they are never strong enough, numb themselves with drugs, or try to cultivate a sense of control in highly dangerous situations, like motorcycle racing, bungee jumping, or working as an ambulance driver. Constantly fighting unseen dangers is exhausting and leaves them fatigued, depressed, and weary.”

He notes the role that stress hormones play in all this. “If elements of the trauma are replayed again and again, the accompanying stress hormones engrave those memories ever more deeply in the mind. Ordinary, day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what is going on around them makes it impossible to feel fully alive. It becomes harder to feel the joys and aggravations of ordinary life, harder to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Not being fully alive in the present keeps them more firmly imprisoned in the past.”

It’s not just the traumas themselves that are the problem. It is the aftermath of those experiences. It’s the way the brain and the mind are wounded by the flashbacks and triggers that continue to perpetuate the original traumas. These are memories that do not typically dissipate over time like many other memories do.

Degrees of recovery and healing are certainly possible, but they require a person to go through processes of remembering and doing so in a sensory way. It is work that is best done with a trusted therapist who understands the nature of trauma.

There are so many good books and information on the web that anyone who wants to explore this more can gain better understanding to help themselves or someone they care about. Much of the work begins with deeply understanding and appreciating the difficulty of living a life where you can suddenly be transported back in time without your permission. When others give you that understanding and appreciation, it helps to lessen some of the loneliness someone with unresolved trauma often experiences.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you suffer from unresolved trauma and experience flashbacks as a result of sensory triggers, to what extent do you find van der Kolk’s words comforting?
  2. If you are someone who cares about a person who struggles with flashbacks, what are some ways you might show them that you understand and appreciate their struggles with their brain and memories that in many ways can seem almost out of control?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute