What Is Re-traumatisation?


Trauma is complex. Even after years of recovery, setbacks can happen, and people can be re-traumatised by various people, places, and events. 

Re-traumatisation Defined 

The impact of trauma can last for years. People can experience somatic complaints like headaches and muscle pain, hyperarousal, and sleep difficulties, regardless of the amount of time that has passed since the initial incident. And when people with a history of trauma encounter something that reminds them of what happened, they can reexperience it as if it were happening at the moment. 

Re-traumatisation differs from regular triggers, although people can confuse the two. While regular triggers can be difficult and distressing, re-traumatisation is more intense, and these triggers can recreate the intense dynamics associated with the original traumatic event. These experiences can be emotionally and even physically distressing and involve feeling a loss of personal safety or control. 

Causes of Re-traumatisation

Re-traumatisation has varying causes. For example, exposure to violence or abuse directed at a person or at someone else can be intensely traumatic, even if that is not the cause of someone’s past trauma. Other traumatic events, such as natural disasters and war, can also re-traumatise people. Even if the event or stressor is unrelated to the initial traumatic experience, it can distress people and remind them of what happened to them. 

Re-traumatisation can also occur when an event is very similar to the original trauma. When stressors such as arguments, space, lighting, imagery, and even smells are similar to a previous traumatic experience, it can be intensely overwhelming and triggering. 

Other potential causes of re-traumatisation include:

  • Encountering the person responsible for the original trauma 
  • Dysfunctional or toxic relationships
  • Exposure to traumatic events on the news or in fiction if there is a resemblance to the original trauma 
  • Witnessing a traumatic event or hearing about one that has happened to someone else
  • Losing a loved one to an accident or illness 
  • Injuries and hospitalisations 

People living in combat zones or areas prone to natural disasters may be at a higher risk of experiencing re-traumatisation. Social isolation from family and friends and a high frequency of life trauma can also increase the risk. 

Effects of Re-traumatisation

Re-traumatisation can be experienced in many different ways, including:

  • Loss of trust and security in places or people
  • More intense nightmares and flashbacks 
  • A resurgence of original trauma symptoms that people may have overcome with treatment, such as sleep problems
  • Increased hypervigilance 
  • More vulnerability to triggers, such as responding to them more or reacting to them strongly 
  • Intense feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, or depression
  • Changes in appetite, such as eating much more or much less

The impact of re-traumatisation can be extensive. Even if people think they have moved past their trauma, a re-traumatising event can be massively triggering and put their recovery on unstable ground. Some people may struggle to deal with the emotions that resurface and turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, or they may experience elevated levels of anxiety or depression for prolonged periods.

Managing Re-traumatisation

No matter the event, re-traumatisation can feel like a massive setback in trauma recovery. Some may think that because the re-traumatising event was not related to the original trauma, they should not be feeling shaken or traumatised by it. However, regardless of the trigger, it is important that people do not minimise how it has affected them. It’s also important to take the time to process the traumatic event and not feel pressured to be okay immediately. 

Re-traumatisation can cause a resurgence of trauma symptoms, but you can use several strategies to manage them, such as:

  • Talking to others – whether it’s a loved one, friend, or professional, talking about the traumatic event and the emotions it dredges up can be highly beneficial. It can also help to talk to those who experienced similar events. 
  • Maintaining a routine – keeping a routine can be hard after a traumatic event, but maintaining one as much as possible can promote better sleep, reduce stress, and reduce anxiety. Having a set bedtime and trying to eat and exercise regularly are great places to start when putting a routine in place.
  • Avoiding excessive time alone – seek support from loved ones and avoid spending too much time alone after a traumatic event. Isolating gives people more time to ruminate and can contribute to greater levels of anxiety and depression.
  • Using grounding techniques – flashbacks are common after re-traumatisation, but they can be combatted with grounding techniques. These techniques can help people connect to the present and remind them that they are safe and secure. One grounding technique that can be done anywhere is describing your surroundings and connecting to all five senses. What can you see, feel, hear, smell and taste? 
  • Getting professional help – seeking help from a professional therapist can provide a space for people to address their triggers and experiences.

Re-traumatisation occurs in response to new, traumatic events or powerful reminders of the original trauma. The causes can vary, but the reaction can be extreme, causing people to experience symptoms such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, and anxiety. Even after working to address the original trauma, re-traumatisation can feel like a setback in trauma recovery; however, it can be addressed and managed with the proper support.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).