Why Are Memories of My Past Trauma Coming Back Now?

Thoughtful woman“I’ve been fine for years. Now I have nightmares every night and can barely function at work. What’s going on?”

“I thought I was over it. I even went to therapy as a kid! Why is it all coming back again?”

“I feel like I’m falling apart, but the abuse was years ago. Does this mean I’m getting worse?”

One of the first things survivors of sexual abuse ask me when they come into my therapy office is, “Why now? Why are these feelings and memories coming back now?” Often, the underlying question is, “I was fine before, but now I’m struggling. Am I going crazy?”

If you’re having this experience—being suddenly overwhelmed by a past trauma—let me reassure you the same way I reassure the people I work with in my office. No, you’re not going crazy! As difficult as it may be to believe, a sudden reemergence of old feelings is often a sign that you’re ready to heal on a deeper level.

Recovery from Trauma Happens in Stages

Healing from a trauma such as sexual assault or abuse happens in stages. In the first few days after an assault, we tend to shut down because the emotions feel so overwhelming that we can deal with them only in small doses. For ongoing sexual abuse or molestation, this shutdown state may last for the entire time the abuse occurs. Eventually, in the days, weeks, and months after an assault occurred or the abuse ends, we usually find ways to “put the past behind us,” to regulate our emotions and to build a stable life. We may still experience some triggers or have some nightmares, and we don’t typically forget about what happened, but over the years we start to feel “normal.”

Then, sometimes, all those feelings come roaring back. What’s going on?

When the fear, the anger, the sadness, the helplessness, the heartache—all the emotions that were perhaps too painful, too complicated, or just “too” in the immediate aftermath of the trauma—suddenly reemerge, your new task is to sit with those emotions and let them have their say.

In my experience as a therapist, what’s happening is that some deep, inner part of you finally feels safe and stable enough to address the leftover emotional fallout that’s been patiently waiting for years. Your job right after the trauma and in the years since the trauma occurred has been to find stability. You developed successful coping mechanisms that let you function in the world without falling apart. Those are invaluable skills that are going to get you through the next part of your recovery.

You Are Strong Enough to Feel Vulnerable Now

When the fear, the anger, the sadness, the helplessness, the heartache—all the emotions that were perhaps too painful, too complicated, or just “too” in the immediate aftermath of the trauma—suddenly reemerge, your new task is to sit with those emotions and let them have their say. They’ve been patiently waiting for you to develop the strength to cope with them successfully, and if they’ve shown up for you now, after all this time, they think you’re finally ready. You are strong enough to feel vulnerable for a while.

So what do you do? How do you cope without getting overwhelmed?

  • Know that you are not regressing or going “crazy.” Reassure yourself that these seemingly new emotions are a normal part of the trauma-recovery process and that they won’t stick around forever. These emotions don’t mean you’re moving backward in your healing or that you’ll always feel this way. There is an end!
  • Recognize that “the only way out is through.” These emotions will go away, but only after you let yourself feel them. Emotions give us valuable information about ourselves and the world, so you need to learn to listen to them. This is your opportunity to learn that skill.
  • Go slowly. If all these emotions feel overwhelming and scary, you can take them in small doses. I often recommend setting a timer for 15 or 10 or even five minutes every day, and using that time to feel whatever you’re feeling right then. When the timer goes off, stop. (This is where your strength comes in!) It may be hard to feel at first, or hard to stop feeling, but that’s why you’re practicing. This exercise helps you build confidence that you can turn off the flood of emotions, which can help reduce anxiety about letting yourself feel.
  • Give yourself credit for your progress. As you work through this stage of the healing process, you may find yourself caught up in one emotion for a while. You may go through a week-long period of sadness, for example, or a month of feeling really angry. People sometimes feel stuck when this happens and forget that they haven’t always felt that way and are therefore not likely to feel that way forever. Keeping a journal or talking about your feelings with a supportive loved one can help you see that you’re moving forward.

If you need additional support or resources, a therapist specializing in trauma recovery can help. If you need immediate help regarding sexual assault or abuse and you’re in the United States, you can call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) for support, resources, and referrals.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Nosal, MFT, therapist in Sonoma, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 38 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • NanaJ

    NanaJ

    May 18th, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    My thought automatically was that maybe you are actually strong enough now to deal with the pain that you had to suppress many years ago. I think that the mind knows what the person can handle and is only willing to allow those thoughts and memories reemerge when it knows that this is when you are strong enough to deal with it. I am so sure that this still feels very painful to you, and it will take time to work through it, but this is progress, and that my friend is success.

  • Jessica T.

    Jessica T.

    January 7th, 2017 at 6:32 AM

    I found it so helpful to comfort the child within. To actually give her a hug (mentally, but with true feelings), say it wasn’t her fault, and say I love you, you didn’t deserve that.

  • Annabelle

    Annabelle

    May 18th, 2015 at 3:12 PM

    This can be a good thing! This could mean that you are finally ready to break through the fog of your past and into the clearing of the future!

  • cole

    cole

    May 19th, 2015 at 3:36 AM

    It can feel awful when all of this reemerges and makes you feel like you are taking a hundred steps backward. It is easy to try to think that this is all part of the healing process and i know logically that it is but it still doesn’t make it feel any better when you start thinking about things and having it impact you all over again when you thought that those feelings were buried and gone.

  • Kat

    Kat

    May 19th, 2015 at 10:16 AM

    so this could be the moment that you have been waiting for but you didn’t know it! this is the time to turn your life around and make it better than it has been, find confidence in yourself and your own abilities and stop allowing the things that happened to you in the past have a detrimental effect on what your future is sure to bring you.

  • vivian

    vivian

    October 15th, 2017 at 2:12 PM

    I AM HAVING A HARD TIME sorry ,.

  • Lisa Nosal, MFT

    Lisa Nosal, MFT

    May 19th, 2015 at 12:47 PM

    cole, I know it can feel awful, and I’m so sorry you’re going through it. I always wish that I had a magic wand that could let people skip over the painful parts of healing. I have found that clients who keep reminding themselves that they are moving forward, not backward, can at least start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  • GailW

    GailW

    May 19th, 2015 at 3:07 PM

    The other night I had that dream again… Where my Mother had explained to everyone what a bad child I was, how they had no option but to send me away!! One of her friends was in it and she was running me down.. For the first time ever I stood up for myself.. Said I wasnt a bad kid, I had bad things done to me and I did some bad things but I wasn’t bad…. Why did I steal $’s from mothers purse, to buy food cause I was always hungry.. Why did I steal food, cause I was hungry… Why did my mother beat me, tell me I was stupid and so ugly no one would ever lI’ve me?? I dont know but nothing I ever did would have caused her to do that… When I woke up I couldn’t figure out what prompted the dream.. I thought this was so far behind me…. Then I realized it was time for more healing and I had to have the dream again.. When I go for my next counselling appt, for the first time I will actually talk about why I’ve always felt my Mother was justified.. Why I’ve always been embarrassed to see people I grew up around… It’s another step I need to take to let go,. I’m so happy this was your post today..

  • Lisa Nosal, MFT

    Lisa Nosal, MFT

    May 19th, 2015 at 8:16 PM

    GailW, what an amazing dream! It’s so wonderful when your dream-self is able to stand up for you! Paying attention to the messages your dreams are giving you — that you aren’t a bad kid, that you didn’t deserve that abuse — can really help you track your healing, especially when you notice a big shift, like you did.

  • Claudia N.

    Claudia N.

    May 20th, 2015 at 5:25 AM

    While I agree that some of us who experience trauma (and on this planet, it is very few women or men who have not experienced some trauma) will need to re-examine it in different life stages, I think it important to note that as a culture we tend to go through periods of shoving the reality of extensive sexist and racist and homophobic violence into proverbial cupboards. And we need to question the ideology of therapy as a support for people dealing with traumatic issues. Support groups and political action have more extensive research to document help with processing trauma, and the therapy community is steeped in sexism and racism and bias. We need to push for new models to empower people, and not to re-hash psychological mumbo jumbo about therapy. Most of us experience trauma and we need to empower our voices, not therapy sessions.

  • Grayson

    Grayson

    May 20th, 2015 at 9:45 AM

    I don’t think that you should totally dismiss therapy Claudia N because for many people this is the only thing that they have ever had that has allowed them to find that voice that they have been missing for so long.

  • Lisa Nosal, MFT

    Lisa Nosal, MFT

    May 20th, 2015 at 6:31 PM

    Claudia N, I absolutely agree that therapists have historically had a lot of harmful blind spots about social justice issues (and many individual therapists might still be struggling with that). Most codes of ethics for therapists now, however, include “cultural competency” as a requirement for ethical therapy, which addresses exactly the issues you bring up: That we live in an unequal society biased against groups of people, and marginalized people can’t fix that by doing “inner work” that ignores external injustice. Good therapists should be able to validate people’s reality and strengthen their inner sense of self, which can help people fight against inequality from a place of wholeness. (And if you don’t feel your therapist is validating in that way, it’s ok to talk to them about it or to find a different therapist.)

    And I certainly believe political action against systematic injustice is another ethical requirement for therapists, and I encourage everyone to participate in such action, as well as support groups when they’re available. I’ve actually run several support groups, and they can be invaluable. Recognizing that you’re not alone and that your voice matters is a wonderful way of fighting back against an unfair status quo, and I think therapy can be a complement to that as well.

  • felder

    felder

    May 25th, 2015 at 6:56 AM

    It is important to know that while the trauma could be coming back and you feel strong enough to handle it right now, you have to be willing to take it slowly… let this unfold in a way that still feels safe for you and that you can handle in small pieces at a time.

  • Adriana

    Adriana

    July 26th, 2015 at 8:32 PM

    I feel I can’t get through sadness, anxiety, and memories from emotional abuse in my marriage where I was isolated from my family, friends, recieving blamings, control and manipulation. I had a lot of stress at work with special education while getting divorce, grand mother’s passed away, plus still receive negative texts from my ex about me and my family.
    I feel exactly they way this article talk. Even with my therapist from 2 years and Psychiatrist. I feel even ashame that I didn’t do my best as an employee for the 1st time ever in my life. I went back for contemp for enforcement of agreement and midifying share parenting and I have fears about not be able to be updated with bills and my new home. No child support and alimony on time; etc.

  • Cynthia p

    Cynthia p

    July 26th, 2015 at 8:35 PM

    this has been true for me personally after a re emergnece after 30 years, when I was at one of my most happiest , content times of my life.
    I find this article right on target and appreciate the knowledge shared.
    I am ok
    :)

  • Dr Powell

    Dr Powell

    July 27th, 2015 at 10:52 AM

    this is exactly what I’ve been teaching my patients. thank you for saying it so well

  • George

    George

    December 9th, 2015 at 9:58 PM

    How does a husband help a wife he recently married only to find out she was sexually abused as a child and I was the first person she told in 50 years? I am overwhelmed with anger and learning to understand but my wife won’t hear of it. So she pushed me away. Now iam confused and hurt by all this. Don’t want to divorce her but having a hard time with all the rejection and symbolic like behavior that in some way this is my fault.

  • Amber

    Amber

    February 7th, 2016 at 7:04 PM

    I would talk to your wife about how you feel. Maybe consider talking to a counselor about how best to support her.

  • Mala

    Mala

    September 5th, 2016 at 4:45 PM

    What you need to do is to get over yourself and realize that what you feel about her experience and her silence does not matter. You have no right to be angry or “help” her if she doesn’t explicitly ask you to do so, because it doesn’t matter if you mean well or hell – It’s still her body and her choice. One of the hardest things for abuse victims, which men overall seem to have a really hard time to understand, is the fact that they have to stuggle every day for the rest of their lives with taking control over their own bodies again.
    Your wife trusted you, she felt comfortable enough in her own body again to be able to tell you about what happened to her. You repaid her trust with removing her choice and right to her own body by trying to tell her what to do about it, and instead of apologizing to her and doing everything you can to earn her trust back you lock yourself into a bubble of self pity. Your wife is in serious pain and your concerns are your own feelings of confusion and hurt, over something that has absolutely nothing to do with you.

    It really can’t be stated enough times:
    Your opinion does not matter. AT ALL.

    Go apologize to your wife, tell her that you love her and that you realize you’ve been an idiot and that you’ve no right to tell her how to handle it but that you’ll always be there if she wants to talk. Tell her you respect her decisions, but more importantly: Mean it.

  • ann o.

    ann o.

    January 6th, 2017 at 5:28 PM

    Mala, thank you for the well-spoken reply. I am tired of people thinking they have every right to my already violated body. It only makes me shut down worse and have more trust issues.

  • M

    M

    January 2nd, 2017 at 9:48 AM

    I am in my mid-thirties and I too have a bacground like your wife and I also have not spoken out about it . I am also married and have never told my husband a thing about it. It must have taken her alot to come out and tell you about it you have not the slighest idea I think. You will never understand and she might see it the same way as I do. I am just starting to deal with the thingS that has happed to me in the past by acknowledging it and it’s been the most painful experience of my life- painful were I thought it would be better if I were not here dealing with it. Thankfully I am past that point of view and hopefully soon I will get the courage to get some professional help. I am sure your wife loves you as I love my husband, I too have pushed and rejected him and only till recently I have come to realize this on my own. I realize my behavior towards him and others -men are due to my past. I will talk to my husband about it when I am ready and when I do I feel he will understand and he will be supportive. Reminding her that you are there for her, support her, remind her that you will not hurt her and she is safe would be nice, but also having patience -she might not realize that you feel this way or like myself not realize what she is doing to cause her husband to feel as such. I don’t know if this is an excuse but I also feel it is like a defence mechanism she might be trying to avoid getting hurt or feel vunerable. Getting a divorce seems harsh to me especially when she mde the effort to open up to you. I think talking to her about therapy would be a start and also couple therapy separately would benefit both of you. She might not want too at first(I been avoiding it) but she will see soon that it can help. You can also seek therapy on your own to better understand where shes at and how you can be supportive of her situation and also as a support for yourself.

  • Mary

    Mary

    February 10th, 2016 at 12:46 PM

    Thanks for sharing this article, it definitely hits home for me! I am what you would call a “runner,” I run from my past and then I dissociate everything. It’s been a protection mechanism for me ever since I was 5. everyone has their own way of dealing with sexual abuse for me I got angry, and dissociated so much. I also was raped at 16 and never told anyone until now. I’m now 34 years old, I am happily married and feel more stable and safe. It’s so true, why is all that trauma coming up now? But I feel more safe and stable plus I have a 1 year old son that I adore. I want a better life for him so I’m working tremendously to heal everyday. It’s never easy going back to the memories, sometimes I want to keep running because that’s where I feel most safe. But I really want to heal this time, and this time I’m ready. Thanks again!

  • Marie Louise

    Marie Louise

    March 8th, 2016 at 9:35 PM

    thank you for sharing. As a person who experienced long term sexual abuse and then teenage rape. I am fully aware of the embodiment of trauma. My freedom and liberation has been realized from the shackles of those experiences and it was a process. Doing yoga, breath and movement moved those shackles quickly. Our body holds on to our past and using these tools helped me immensely. Good luck in your process of discovering freedom however it works for you. Trust your body is amazing at healing. You have the strength to let it go. Much love

  • Adrianna P.

    Adrianna P.

    March 20th, 2016 at 10:08 AM

    This is happening right now. It’s what I needed to see….

  • Kim

    Kim

    September 17th, 2016 at 4:58 PM

    Good

  • Sue

    Sue

    September 18th, 2016 at 12:54 AM

    I had 35 years of reliving my nightmare…. the first 25 years not knowing what all about as I had blocked it and the birth of my first child threw the reality of what happened forward 😢. I cant remember the first 2 years of my sons life consumed with the utter devastation of what had happened to me as a child. When i reported it to the police 5 years ago i slowly started my road to recovery but the pure fear I felt every minute of every day that the threats from man who hurt me as a 5 year old would come true…even when as an adult! My life was consumed with the fear, anger, upset, I was diagnosed with chronic PTSD… I had another child and I lived 2 lives ….. the perfect mummy so no one in that part of my life….friends, school, even my husband sadly did not have a clue…. then when on my own I was in complete and utter crisis. It got so severe I knew I needed help…after many counsellors who were quite frankly useless and the majority believed I would never heal until I forgave (that became my first question to any counsellor before we began!!!)…. I eventually found the lady who saved my life. She is a Trauma Focussed CBT counsellor, I had approx. 40 sessions before I had EMDR to process the traumatic memories that were stuck litetally on my forehead. It has been the most incredibly, at times overwhelming, journey but I got through it. My point here is I went literally to hell and back, my lowest point of complete despair and it was at that point I was ready to heal. I just would like anyone reading this to please understand it does get worse before it gets better but that is part of process, you dont see it like that at the time but when through the other side its as clear as day. Please anyone out there struggling…. you are amazing, have faith, have strength, someone may have hurt you but your inner core…your heart…. loves you unconditionally, just trust it and you will slowly heal 💜

  • dee

    dee

    September 22nd, 2016 at 2:09 PM

    I’m a 34 year old mother of 3 beautiful llittles and I’ve been happily married for 10 years. I was a victim of sexual, physical, emotional abuse as well as neglect by my parents. I manage to run away from home when I was 18 and set forth a journey of healing except I wast strong enough to seek proportional help. I tried but I just couldn’t even get out of my car and I sat in the parking lot of the therapist office. I realized that I had to do what ever I could on my own to lead a healthy life and somehow manege to unplug myself from all my toxic friends and family and started a “new” life. I hung out with people who had their ducks in a row. I eventually got married to an amazing guy had 3 little ones. 3 weeks ago a person came into my life unexpectedly that set me into a free fall of emotions, memories, nightmares and panic attacks. I’ve realized that by never sharing my story I had never dealt with any of this emotions and I had push them in a dark room somewhere in my mind. I started seeing a therapist two weeks ago and things have gotten worse it just doesn’t help that I am horrible at expressing emotion and I feel stuck. I used to be a very social person but lately I want nothing to do with people. I’ve deleted all my online social accounts and have stomped answering messages or emails. I want to fast forward this phase its awful and painful and my inability to express it makes it 10X worse. I dont know what to do :(

  • DF

    DF

    March 1st, 2017 at 12:12 PM

    Thank you for sharing. How is everything with your husband? How is the communication between both of you?

  • Margaret

    Margaret

    September 24th, 2016 at 2:32 AM

    I can’t thank you enough for this post. It’s the first time in 5 years that I’ve found an answer that makes sense to me about the past. Thank you.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    December 23rd, 2016 at 2:22 PM

    Thank you for this post, it has helped me alot. I am having a tremendous amount of emotional/physical memories of repressed sexual abuse. I am trying to get a glimpse of what actually happened but when I am am napping or sleeping I wake up suddenly just as I get to the scary point in the memory/dream. These physical symptoms tell me that memories are trying to come up and I am ready to have them break through but it is very hard. I have a good therapist and she is helping me with this. I wish I had healed this all many eyars ago but you are right that this kind of healing comes on stages, and only when we are ready.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    December 23rd, 2016 at 2:24 PM

    oops, typos ! “years ago” and “in stages.” : )

  • Charlene

    Charlene

    January 17th, 2017 at 8:30 AM

    Although I never suppressed the memory of the abuse at the hands of my brother, I just never told anyone. When my son was about the same age as I was when I was being abused, I went through a period of depression and couldn’t stop thinking about what he had done to me. My doctor explained that because my son is about the same age as I was when abused, it acted liked a trigger. I guess it just never goes away. My 91 year old father is inappropriate in his behaviour with me on occasion. I just stay out of his reach when he gets like that, but it brings back all the bad feelings.

  • Inriia

    Inriia

    January 17th, 2017 at 8:47 AM

    with what minor bad things I went through (and I realize most people tend to say that), there was no purpose for it to come back. no reason that it needed to. I had been fine for years, surviving and getting through college with no thoughts about what happened as a kid by the family member. then got a bad nightmare one night which got me wondering. it wasnt till after we moved out of state it started coming back. and now life is a mess, or rather I am.
    sorry to complain in here. wanting to put in agreement

  • Tt

    Tt

    November 29th, 2017 at 5:49 PM

    Hello, I have dealt with sexual abuse since 7 (I think). I had to live with my father all my life. But now for some reason I can’t stand to be around him. I used to be around him sometimes we sang together an went to the same church. My mother often wants us to come over but I told her I don’t want to be around him. Am I wrong for feeling this way? I know everybody says yes of course you have every right to feel what you feel. But I was around him all this time. What is really going on?

  • Df

    Df

    November 30th, 2017 at 3:06 PM

    It is normal. It is better to stay away from him to prevent any backslashes. Your health and calm are more important.

  • Tanis c

    Tanis c

    February 12th, 2018 at 8:37 PM

    Why after 15 years I started talking to my sister..and after a car accident I was in..she said something and now after 15 years of memory loss from my childhood I am getting flashbacks ..it’s scarey2zk

  • Lea

    Lea

    February 18th, 2018 at 5:14 PM

    I was raped by a ex boyfriend for a long time I knew I was raped but didn’t remember any of it.couple weeks ago everything came back like what I was wearing,what all happened in the relationship it scared the heck out of me.im back on anti depressants.but now I feel a lot stronger

  • Skyeler B.

    Skyeler B.

    May 1st, 2018 at 5:27 PM

    its not as bad as rape or sexual assault but rather like old memories coming back up to the surface from when i was a kid from watching movies like rio etc and this was back when i was a teen im 22 now

Leave a Reply

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

  Notify me when new comments are added.

  Subscribe me to the GoodTherapy.org public newsletter.

* Indicates required field.

 

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog

   
GoodTherapy.org is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on GoodTherapy.org.