What Is Re-Experiencing in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Symptoms and Triggers

distressed woman with hand on her head
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Re-experiencing--having sudden and unwanted traumatic memories that intrude into or even seem to replace what’s happening now--is a core symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you have PTSD, chances are you've had symptoms of re-experiencing.

What Are the Symptoms of Re-Experiencing?

Symptoms of re-experiencing include:

  • Having recurrent nightmares
  • Being physically responsive to reminders of the traumatic event (for example, feeling a surge in your heart rate, or starting to sweat)
  • Having very strong feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event
  • Having the sensation that the traumatic event is happening all over again, sometimes called a flashback

What Happens in a Flashback?

Flashbacks can be particularly frightening. Unlike normal memories, a flashback is perceived as happening right now, replacing the present scene. If you've ever had a flashback, you know that flashback emotions and physical reactions like images, sounds, smells, tastes, and body reactions are the same and quite possibly just as distressing. In a flashback, you may lose all awareness of present surroundings and live through the trauma as though it were happening again. People experiencing a flashback are generally unable to recognize that it is a flashback.

Researchers have found that most often, a flashback centers on the “Warning! Watch out!” moment when, at the time the trauma occurred, the person first felt the threat of danger. This helps to explain why people having flashbacks may take sudden and strong defensive actions, sometimes causing harm to themselves or others: They’re feeling seriously threatened right now.

Are There Re-Experiences That Don't Feel Like Reliving a Traumatic Event?

There are other types of re-experiencing. For example, you may sometimes have had present-moment thoughts when you recalled a traumatic event, such as “Why did it happen to me?" or “How could I have kept it from happening?” You may even have thoughts of the ways the trauma has harmed your life.

  • People with PTSD commonly have thoughts like these; in fact, some may have them more often than they have flashbacks or other re-experiences.
  • Re-experiencing also includes consciously recalling your traumatic experience in a safe way with a therapist.

What Are Some Common Triggers of Re-Experiences?

Another reason why re-experiences can be so frightening is something with which you may already be familiar: Most people with PTSD don’t know when they’ll encounter a trigger or what it will be. So when a trigger suddenly appears, it seems to “come out of the blue.”

  • Stories in the Media. If you have PTSD, you're probably aware that news stories describing traumatic events that people with PTSD have also been through can trigger re-experiences. It may come as a surprise to you, however, that this can happen even with reported events (or aspects of them) that have very little connection with people's own traumas.
  • Other Triggers. Many trigger cues are simply brief sensations that were part of a person’s traumatic event, such as a tone of voice, a certain way light falls on an object, or a touch or movement of a part of the body.

How Well Does Re-Experiencing Predict PTSD?

It’s common for a person to have an intrusive re-experience of a traumatic event very soon after it occurs. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will develop PTSD.


Ehlers A, Hackmann A, Michael T (2004). Intrusive re-experiencing in post-traumatic stress disorder: phenomenology, theory, and therapy. Memory, 12(4), 403-415.

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