For those of us whom have survived sexual abuse/violence, flashbacks can be an extremely disturbing and distressing experience. A flashback is basically when a person can be overwhelmed and immersed in the past and become unaware that they are not in the present moment. They occur outside our control and this is what can make them so distressing. Due to sexual abuse and violence being an extremely traumatic form of abuse, flashbacks can be one of the outcomes of such terrible events. When we experience a trauma such as sexual abuse the body and brain adapt and become really creative. Experiencing danger or threatening situations the brain is equipped to put those memories, sensations and feelings away for a time when it can be dealt with and feel ‘safe’ enough to explore at a later date, (however very inconvenient it feels like!). Particularly, experiencing abuse at a younger age, the brain will avoid experiences that it may feel overwhelmed by or not ready to deal with.
A flashback can be triggered by almost anything; it doesn’t have to be related to sexual activity at all. Flashbacks can shock and catch you by surprise. They can be intrusive and leave you feeling frightened, helpless, shamed and disempowered. A smell, sound, a word, facial expression, watching something on T.V can all be triggers that activate a flashback and the list does not end there.
This all sounds really scary and it is when you experience uncomfortable, helpless feelings whilst having a flashback. It’s really important though to remember that it isn’t happening in the present and for you to try and find ways to soothe and understand why this is happening to you. Learning about flashbacks can help lower the distress in can inflict on you and it can potentially help you gain some control over such intrusive experiences. It’s also really important to be reminded that your experience and you are unique – this gives you the permission to say to you that there are NO set rules of experiencing a flashback, there are no right or wrongs! Here are some of the types of flashbacks…
This is when a visual image from the past traumatic events “flashes” into your mind for an instant or a period of time (this can be then known as disassociating). It can feel real, dreamlike; sometimes the image being seen can be surrounded in darkness (like in a tunnel). A colour, a shadow the way someone dresses, a room, are just some examples of what might trigger you to experience a flashback. Again these are just some examples of visual flashbacks; there is no end to how you may experience a visual flashback.
Like a visual flashback an auditory flashback can have similar effects the difference being a particular sound/noise e.g. a door slamming, a creak in the floor boards, someone shouting, a piece of music, a certain word spoken, the tone of someone’s voice can send you into shock, fear and shame.
Body memories can bring you to experience usually memories connected with your abuse in a physical manner. This could manifest itself in many ways such as body aches/pains, tightening/soar throat, discomfort, disgust, headaches, nausea, needing to go to the toilet.
These feelings experienced you may have experienced right back at the point of the abuse you suffered, but were unaware due to shock. This can also include sexual feelings/arousal, which can be particularly confusing as you could ask yourself, How can I experience sexual feelings from being in a situation in a where I didn’t feel in control or want to be? Again the mind and body are just doing their job on impulse and remember you are now in a ‘safer’ place than you were back then (even though it may not feel like it). So, the mind and body think o.k. these feelings can come out! It’s really important to keep reminding yourself, at the time of the abuse your body/mind were not expecting such events to happen so it went into shock. The power of the abuse means you really had little to say in the events that occurred; this was not your fault.
So What Can Be Done to Understan/Reduce Flashbacks?
Counselling/therapy can help you identify your awareness of what emotions/feelings are around for you just before, during and after a flashback. It can be a chance for you to gain a further awareness of your feelings and thoughts and express them. This can be extremely hard work and at times feel like matters are getting worse, but this is you getting in contact with feelings you could have blocked off for some time. Therefore it is really important that the therapist you see is someone you feel you want to work with and can learn to develop a trusting relationship…So take your time when contemplating approaching therapy and finding a therapist.
This basically means finding a way to help ‘bring you back’ into the present. It is a way of supporting and soothing yourself when uncomfortable emotions rear themselves. Here are some suggestions for grounding yourself. Again this is something you can ask a counsellor to support explore and help you understand what may trigger your flashbacks. Finding grounding techniques that work for you are key to you experiencing less harrowing flashbacks.
- Listening to a piece of music that comforts, soothes, relaxes you
- Breathing slowly and deeply. By paying attention to your breathing you can try and concentrate on slowing down, breathing slower and steadying the pace rather than it being shallow and erratic can help relieve anxiety
- Focusing on an object in the room your in, listening to the sounds around you, it might be the traffic, the person your in the room with, a clock on the wall. This can help particularly if you are aware of some of your triggers and what happens for you before a flashback
- Tapping and feeling your feet on the floor…or moving parts of your body to assist you to ‘come back’ into the room
- Having a relaxing bath/shower
- Talking to someone you trust and feel safe with after the event
- Walking/Exercise of your choice
- Watching a film that comforts you
- Going to bed and cuddling up, hugging something/someone that allows you to feel safe
- As you start to understand and give yourself permission to explore flashbacks your awareness of your triggers of a flashback will help support ways and means to soothe and ground yourself. Its important that you try to be kind to yourself and give this time
Finding a Support Group
Finding a group via the internet or reputable organization, (always check what policies and procedures are in place to safeguard you and that you feel ‘safe’ enough to carry out your research.). This can often be an environment that allows you to share your experiences, thoughts and feelings with fellow survivors of abuse. This can be empowering, learning that there are people like you who are beginning to break the silence and work through the legacy of abuse. You are not on your own.
Using your creativity, whatever that might be to maybe express some of the powerful feelings that are stored within yourself. It could be picking up a pen and writing a poem, a lyric/piece of music, painting, a sport activity…..anything that’s creative for you!
Again this is something that will be unique to you. Whilst utilizing whatever your creative flare please be aware and prepared as best you can to potentially get into contact with powerful emotions, thoughts and emotions.