What It Means to ‘’Re-Experience’’ a Traumatic Event

You may have heard of the term “re-experiencing, “a sequence of trauma-related symptoms that some people experience after a stressful or traumatic event.

A person presenting with re-experiencing symptoms may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition caused by a profoundly traumatic or stressful experience. 

However, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD.

Types of re-experiences in post-traumatic stress disorder

You may experience various symptoms after something upsetting happens to you (or around you). 

Many variations of trauma exposure can create specific emotional and physiological responses within us, which we are often unaware of (particularly during a stressful period or crisis).

Trauma is not what happens to you; it is what happens inside you.

Silhouette of sad teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day

Perhaps the best way to conceptualise trauma comes from trauma and addiction specialist Gabor Mate.

Mate believes that “trauma is not what happens to us; it is what happens inside us.”

Let’s roll with this explanation for a while.

Imagine post-traumatic stress symptoms as protective mechanisms; for instance, our brains are not set up to process profoundly disturbing or upsetting material while the bad stuff is happening.

In a crisis, our brains and nervous systems are highly activated – our bodies usually work extra hard to get us through whatever is happening in our immediate environment.

Perhaps we fight, flee, or freeze; whatever our internal systems believe is the response that will help us survive requires us to use much of our inner resources.

Essentially, we often cannot process disturbing or shocking material while the event is happening. The ultimate goal is to get through something traumatic or, depending on the circumstances, survive.

Stored trauma

Traumatic memories often “store” or hibernate in the body. Once the brain and nervous system feel safe enough to release upsetting material, it does so in the form of flashbacks, memories, nightmares, and so forth.

All this may explain why some people experience PTSD symptoms weeks, months or even years after a traumatic event. 

The process of re-experiencing alerts us to an unhealed wound, something that, for whatever reason, hasn’t been effectively processed.

PTSD symptoms may encourage us to find recovery and, ultimately, heal the wound.

Trauma treatment

Symptoms of trauma

One of the keywords in trauma work is “safety”. We need to feel safe enough to talk about our traumas to heal. 

Trauma therapies help guide us back to feelings of safety and create the necessary space to unpack and process traumatic memories and alter any negative beliefs that may have occurred.

Releasing traumatic memories

With the guidance of a trauma therapist, you can process any stored memories, thus discharging them from the body and alleviating any severe symptoms that might prevent you from moving forward.

Inherently, PTSD is just as much a physiological condition as it is emotional. 

Therapies such as EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing) and trauma-specific therapies address the psychological and physiological symptoms of PTSD.

These pioneering treatments are used to help trauma survivors manage their symptoms, reframe difficult experiences, and create more positive beliefs around their trauma history. 

Contact the team at Camino Recovery for more information on our trauma treatment programs.

Re-experiencing symptoms

You may experience various feelings and sensations as your body and brain attempt to acclimate and accommodate to what is happening around you.

How people process traumatic events will vary and depend significantly on the type of trauma, a person’s history, and the severity of symptoms.

 Types of re-experiencing symptoms in PTSD include:

  • Recurrent nightmares related to a traumatic event or experience
  • Intense feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event.
  • Experiencing frequent, upsetting memories or thoughts related to the trauma 
  • Physical responses (i.e., increased heart rate, sweating or a sick feeling in the stomach when reminded of a traumatic event).

What it means to “re-experience” a traumatic event

We all assign different meanings to our experiences; these unique interpretations might sometimes be helpful or unhelpful.

Either way, researchers and trauma specialists say there is no way to tell who will develop trauma symptoms and who won’t.

For example, two people could experience the same thing and have markedly different ideas and perceptions about the event or situation.

Risk factors

Image of unshaven young man wearing eyeglasses looking out window

What it means to re-experience a traumatic event will be different for everyone. 

However, researchers say that some people are more likely to develop PTSD than others.  

Risk factors for PTSD include:

  • A history of trauma – if you have previous traumatic experiences, such as childhood trauma, abuse or neglect, you might be more susceptible to PTSD.
  • A history of substance abuse – people with a history of drug or alcohol abuse are more vulnerable to PTSD. Studies show that alcohol or drug use may interfere with an individual’s coping ability, meaning they have limited resources to manage trauma or other stressful events.
  • A family history of mental illness, such as PTSD or depression.

Other risk factors

Other risk factors for developing PTSD include:

  • A lack of social support
  • Chronic stress
  • Poor stress management or coping skills 

PTSD experiences

Your particular experiences and symptoms of PTSD are likely to differ from someone else’s. For example, you may experience symptoms when you least expect them.

This may look like random, upsetting flashbacks while on vacation or when you’re having coffee with friends. In addition, some of the scenarios in which flashbacks often occur are unexpected, adding to many peoples’ distress.


Flashbacks can be particularly frightening to those with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

A flashback can be perceived as happening right now, replacing the present scene (Types of Re-Experiences in PTSD, Verywell mind, Matthew Tull, PhD, November 16, 2020).

Flashbacks feel like you are reliving a traumatic event repeatedly.

According to researcher and writer Matthew Tull, researchers discovered that a flashback centres on the “Warning! Watch out!” moment when, at the time the trauma occurred, the person first felt the threat of danger (Types of Re-Experiences in PTSD, Verywell mind, Matthew Tull, PhD, November 16, 2020).

Reliving memories

depressed man thinking of memories

A flashback may involve reliving difficult times in your life, for example, when a loved one was profoundly sick, and you felt helpless and grief-stricken. 

On the other hand, you may flashback to a time in your childhood when you felt isolated at school or home. 

During a flashback episode, you may lose all awareness of your present surroundings and live through the trauma as though it were happening again (Types of Re-Experiences in PTSD, Verywell mind, Matthew Tull, PhD, November 16, 2020).

Unhealthy beliefs

A common occurrence in trauma is when a person adopts unhelpful beliefs about the self and the world.

These beliefs may result in a process psychologists call ‘counterfactual thinking,’ such as ‘what ifs’ or ‘if only’.

For example, a traumatised individual may contemplate the following:

 ‘What if I did more to prevent my loved ones’ illness?’ or ‘If only I spotted the signs early enough, I could have gotten them to the hospital sooner.’

These beliefs may occur on a subconscious level where you are entirely unaware of them yet significantly affected.

This often happens in situations where a person engages in self-sabotaging behaviours or when someone participates in self-destructive behaviours like substance abuse or self-harm.

Many may adopt a more negative existential view, believing that the world is cruel, unsafe or dangerous.

Trauma triggers

Trauma triggers can induce PTSD symptoms; for example, you may visit a specific place that reminds you of a traumatic event. 

Additionally, certain sounds, smells, people, objects and even how something looks can trigger trauma symptoms.

For example, the sunlight hitting the curtain in a specific way may remind you of an event you’d rather forget or a particular smell, like hand sanitiser, which may take you back to a time when a parent or other relative was hospitalised.

Other triggers may include stories on the news or social media – for instance; you may hear a disturbing report on the television and find yourself relieving a similar traumatic memory as if it were happening in the present.

Treatment for PTSD

People support each other in a rehab session

Fortunately, PTSD doesn’t have to be a way of life. Various treatment options can help and reduce your re-experiencing symptoms.

Treatment options may include:

  • EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing) – this treatment involves focusing on a traumatic memory while a therapist guides you through bilateral eye movements. EMDR helps people to reprocess traumatic memories and replace negative beliefs with healthy ones by reframing the memory’s original climate. 
  • Grounding techniques – can allow a person to ‘ground’ themselves into the present moment; for example, grounding techniques may include sniffing lavender or peppermint or turning the volume up on the television.
  • Psychotherapy – talk therapy, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), can benefit those with PTSD. CBT allows people to address and resolve any maladjusted thoughts and beliefs and learn healthy ways of coping with stress.

Camino Recovery can help.

We diagnose and treat various mental health disorders, addictions and co-occurring conditions at Camino Recovery.

Our trauma-informed team provides gold-standard treatments for those with trauma symptoms and other mental health conditions.

All our programs are personalised to suit the needs and requirements of each individual. Our compassionate, caring approach creates the ultimate foundation for deep, transformational healing and recovery.

If you are struggling with PTSD or another mental health condition, contact our friendly team, who can help.

Additional resources

  1. Types of Re-Experiences in PTSD, Verywell mind, Matthew Tull, PhD, November 16, 2020
  2. Traumatic Events, Healthline, Jacquelyn Cafasso, April 14, 2021
Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

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