A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.
Triggers are very personal; different things trigger different people. The survivor may begin to avoid situations and stimuli that they think triggered the flashback. They will react to this flashback, trigger with an emotional intensity similar to that at the time of the trauma.
A person’s triggers are activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
The senses identified as being the most common to trigger someone are sight and sound, followed by touch and smell, and taste close behind. A combination of the senses is identified as well, especially in situations that strongly resemble the original trauma.
Although triggers are varied and diverse, there are often common themes.
- Often someone who resembles the abuser or who has similar traits or objects (ie. clothing, hair color, distinctive walk).
- Any situation where someone else is being abused (ie. anything from a raised eyebrow and verbal comment to actual physical abuse).
- The object that was used to abuse
- The objects that are associated with or were common in the household where the abuse took place (ie. alcohol, piece of furniture, time of year).
- Any place or situation where the abuse took place (ie. specific locations in a house, holidays, family events, social settings).
- Anything that sounds like anger (ie. raised voices, arguments, bangs and thumps, something breaking).
- Anything that sounds like pain or fear (ie. crying, whispering, screaming).
- Anything that might have been in the place or situation prior to, during, or after the abuse or reminds her/him of the abuse (ie. sirens, foghorns, music, cricket, chirping, car door closing).
- Anything that resembles sounds that the abuser made (ie. whistling, footsteps, pop of can opening, tone of voice).
- Words of abuse (ie. cursing, labels, put-downs, specific words used).
- Anything that resembles the smell of the abuser (ie. tobacco, alcohol, drugs, after shave, perfume).
- Any smells that resemble the place or situation where the abuse occurred (ie. food cooking ,wood, odors, alcohol).
- Anything that resembles the abuse or things that occurred prior to or after the abuse (ie. certain physical touch, someone standing too close, petting an animal, the way someone approaches you).
- Anything that is related to the abuse, prior to the abuse or after the abuse (ie. certain foods, alcohol, tobacco).
Flashbacks are memories of past traumas. They may take the form of pictures, sounds, smells, body sensations, feelings, or the lack of them (numbness).
Many times there is no actual visual or auditory memory with flashbacks. One may have a sense of panic, of being trapped, or a feeling of powerlessness with no memory stimulating it. These experiences can also happen in dreams.
During the initial crisis, the survivor had to insulate her/himself from the emotional and physical horrors of the trauma. In order to survive, that insulated part of the self remained isolated, unable to express the feelings and thoughts of that time. It is as though the survivor put that part of her/his self into a time capsule, which later surfaces and comes out as a flashback, feeling just as intense in the present as it did during the crisis.
When that part comes out, the survivor is experiencing the past as if it were happening today. The intense feelings and body sensations occurring are frightening because the feelings/sensations are not related to the reality of the present and many times seem to come from nowhere.
The survivor may begin to think they are crazy and is afraid of telling anyone of these experiences. The survivor may feel out of control and at the mercy of her/his experiences.
Flashbacks are unsettling and may feel overwhelming because the survivor becomes so caught up in the trauma that they forget about the safety and security of the present moment.