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Triggers, Flashbacks and Ways of Coping

What Are Flashbacks?

A flashback is when we re-experience a traumatic event from the past. This can last seconds or sometimes hours, often feeling more intrusive and sudden than a memory.

Flashbacks are a natural way in which our bodies and brains try to process what has happened to us and is experienced in a unique way to each survivor.

Some trauma survivors over time become aware of triggers which cause flashbacks. These can often be linked to our senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound) as we store trauma experiences in our bodies. This is often why we physically experience the senses of ‘fight or flight’ for example before knowing why.

Specific times of the year in themselves can be triggering too. The festive season brings much stress emotionally, often financially as well as putting us in social situations that can often feel uncomfortable or out of our control, alongside the societal pressure to feel ‘happy’…after all it’s Christmas, right?!? This time of year can mean we spend time with people/ family we don’t want to, who may even be perpetrators of our abuse, or who perhaps were unable to protect or support us in the way we needed when we experienced sexual violence. This can leave many survivors trying to cope with challenging and triggering situations.



When experiencing flashbacks, Grounding techniques can help.

Firstly acknowledge you are having a flashback – make this statement in your head or aloud if it is helpful, as many times as you need. Remind yourself this flashback is temporary and that you are safe. Sometimes it can be helpful to check the time on a clock or your phone to ground yourself in the present.

Where possible take time to focus on your breathing. During a flashback our breathing often becomes fast. By bringing our attention back to our breathing it will automatically slow this and our heart rate down. Take time to notice how air flows in and out of your body and focus on how your body rises and falls with each breath.

Many survivors talk of the ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Grounding Technique’ being helpful. Simply this technique invites you to identify:

  • 5 things you can see (what is on the walls, on the floor, out the window)
  • 4 things you can touch (what is close to hand – your top, where your feet rest, a blanket, a bag)
  • 3 things you can hear (the buzz of the washing machine, birds, traffic)
  • 2 things you can smell (washing power on your clothes, perfume, trees)
  • 1 thing you can taste (some talk of carrying strong mints/ sweet they like they can use as part of grounding)

Together these aim to bring you back to the present and remind your brain and body that the flashback is an experience from the past. Right here, right now you are safe.


Afterwards …

if you are not already, aim to go somewhere you feel safe. For some survivors talking can be helpful – this may be a trusted friend or for more independent support the national Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline offers confidential advice and support. Wrapping yourself up in a blanket can give a sense of feeling held and safe while continuing to help ground you in the present moment. Other potential helpful self-care activities could include watching a favourite film, drawing, listening to music, or cooking. Considering these activities before a flashback occurs is helpful so resources are available when you need them.

Flashbacks can be very tiring and it can take time to recover from each one. Be kind to yourself, take time for you, listen to what you and your body need. Your feelings and trauma matter – whatever time of the year it is.

You never have to manage this alone. The Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline is open every day from 6pm to midnight (except 31 December: 6pm to 11pm).

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