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Flashbacks and Triggers


We all have memories that are triggered by a certain smell, a particular song, or even the jingle on a television commercial.  Maybe the memories are wonderful and remind you of a time when you were happily cooking in the kitchen with your mother, playing with your siblings on the fresh cut grass, or sitting around with a bowl of popcorn on a wintery night watching a movie with your family.  Those are wonderful memories and ones that should be treasured forever.  But for some of us, those smells, songs, and sounds take us back to a time that we would much rather forget and erase from our conscience forever.

For survivors of abuse, flashbacks are some of the scariest things we can encounter and something that is impossible to control.  Even for those of us whose abuse ended decades ago; the flashbacks still happen and the triggers seem to be everywhere and pop up when we least expect them.  And just when you think you’ve moved past your abuse, a smell will fill your nostrils, or a song from your childhood comes on the radio; making you look around in panic thinking that your abuser is going to pop out of the shadows and hurt you.  You feel like you are re-experiencing the abuse and the old feelings of fight or flight consume your body and mind.  For me, sometimes the flashbacks are a nightmare I just can’t wake up from.

A few weeks ago I was at a friend’s house in the country, excited to get out the go-cart and tear up and down the roads with my two boys.  The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and my boys and I were full of energy and happiness; it was the perfect day.  My friend walked us to the big barn on his property where he kept the go cart, pulled open the big sliding door to let us in and I stopped in my tracks; my eyes filled up with tears, my heart began pounding and I felt like someone was squeezing my lungs so tightly I couldn’t breathe without hyperventilating.

The smell pouring out of that barn immediately took me back to one of the most traumatic periods of my life; the farm life with Mom.  The place where we moved when I was a young child and I spent over three years in absolute hell.  The place where I was physically abused more than any other place we lived because we had no neighbors who could hear me scream.  The place of my nightmares and the place of my deepest, darkest memories.  That smell took me right back to the day when I found my precious farm animal, my goat Indy, murdered on the floor of our old barn, filled with hundreds of BB gun holes that my mother had pumped into him all day long while I was at school.

Although I was surrounded by happiness and the sounds of laughter from my boys, my mind was dark and I wasn’t there with them in the moment.  I didn’t see the go cart or any of the other fun things my friend had behind that barn door; all I could see was the image of my precious Indy bleeding to death on the ground and tears filled my eyes.  I looked behind me, almost expecting to see my mother running down from the farmhouse to beat me and berate me and I wanted to run away and never come back; it was too much on my heart, mind and soul.

But then the sound of my three year old’s voice saying “Mommy!” broke me out of my nightmare and I snapped back to reality.  I looked down at my precious son and when I saw his smiling face and his bright, blue eyes looking up at me, my heart stopped pounding so loudly, my fists unclenched, and my breathing began to return to normal.  My little boy’s voice reminded me of the reality of now and that I was in the present; not the past.  His voice and face reminded me that what I was doing at that moment and experiencing was completely different than what had /happened to me years ago and that I was safe and protected from my abuser.  I wasn’t going to find a dead animal and Mom wasn’t waiting in the kitchen to run down and beat me up.  I was in a different time and place, far removed from my abusive past.

Reclaiming your life after abuse or trauma is a long and difficult journey.  Every survivor’s story is unique and different; and we are all triggered and have flashbacks at the most unexpected times.  I don’t have a magic formula to make the flashbacks stop and I don’t think there is one.  It is something that we all have to deal with and cope with on a daily basis; but what we can do is change how we react to those flashbacks.

We can remember to stop and breathe, to calm ourselves, truly take in our surroundings and remember that we aren’t in our abusive homes and our abuser isn’t lurking around the corner waiting to pounce on us like a hungry lion.  We can remind ourselves that we are survivors and those horrible things that happened to us made us the strong and powerful people that we are today.  And we can replace those bad memories with good memories.  Now when I smell what is behind that sliding barn door, I can think about riding the go cart with my sons and the happiness on all of our faces that day.  We will never forget, but we can choose how we respond to those bad memories.  We are survivors and if we could survive our abusive pasts; we can survive those awful memories too.

Flashbacks and Triggers


Sarah Burleton NY Times bestselling author

Victoria Gigante Writes For Psych CentralSarah Burleton was born in a little town in Illinois to a very emotionally disturbed woman. Her first book, her child abuse memoir "Why Me," spent 26 weeks on the New York Times and the print version is endorsed by David Pelzer, author of "A Child Called It." Sarah is now realizing her goal in becoming an ambassador for abused children and adult survivors and is currently conducting workshops and seminars throughout the state. Her message of strength over adversity and her story will help counselors, teachers, and other professionals identify signs of abuse and learn ways to establish trust with an abused child.


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APA Reference
, . (2015). Flashbacks and Triggers. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/strength-adversity/2015/08/flashbacks-and-triggers/

 

Last updated: 22 Aug 2015
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