Flashbacks are memories of past traumas. They may take the form of pictures, sounds, smells, body sensations, feelings, or the lack of them (numbness). Many times there is no actual visual or auditory memory. One may have the sense of panic, being trapped, feeling powerless with no memory stimulating it. These experiences can also happen in dreams.
As a child (or adolescent), we had to insulate ourselves from the emotional and physical horrors of the trauma. In order to survive that insulated child remained isolated unable to express the feelings an thoughts of that time. It is as though we put that part into a time capsule until it comes out full blown in the present.
When that part comes out the little one is experiencing the past as if it was happening today. As the flashback occurs, it is as if we forget that we have an adult part available to us for reassurance, protection and grounding. The intense feelings and body sensations occurring are so frightening because the feelings/sensations are not related to the reality of the present and many times seem to come from out of nowhere.
We begin to think we are crazy and are afraid of telling anyone (including our therapist) of these experiences. We feel out of control and at the mercy of our experiences.
We begin to avoid situations, and stimuli, that we think triggered these flashbacks. Many times flashbacks occur during any form of sexual intimacy, or by seeing someone who has similar characteristics as the perpetrator, or it may be caused by a situation today that stirs up similar trapped feelings, (confrontations, aggressive people).
If you are feeling small, you are experiencing a flashback. If you are experiencing stronger feelings than are called for in the present situation, you are experiencing a flashback.
Flashbacks are normal.
Vietnam vets have normalized this experience and have coined the term as post-traumatic stress disorder. Even the diagnostic category book for psychiatry defines post-traumatic stress disorder as the normal experience of all people experiencing an event that is outside the range of normal human experience.
- Tell yourself that you are having a flashback.
- Remind yourself that the worst is over. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories of the past. The actual event took place long ago when you were little and you survived. Now it is time to let out that terror, rage, hurt, and panic. Now is the time to honor your experience.
- Get grounded. This means stamping your feet on the ground so that the little one knows you have feet and can get away now if you need to. As a child you couldn’t get away. Now you can!
- Breathe. When we get scared we stop normal breathing. As a result our body begins to panic from lack of oxygen. Lack of oxygen in itself causes a great deal of panic feelings: pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint, shakiness, dizziness. When we breathe deeply enough a lot of the panic feeling can decrease. Breathing deeply means putting your hand on your diaphragm and breathing deeply enough so that our diaphragm pushes against our hand and then exhaling so that the diaphragm goes in.
- Reorient to the present. Begin to use your five senses in the present. Look around and see the colors in the room, the shapes of things, the people near, etc. Listen to the sounds in the room: your breathing, traffic, birds, people, cars, etc. Feel your body and what is touching it: your clothes, your own arms and hands, the chair of floor supporting you.
- Speak to the little one and reassure him/her. It is very healing to get your adult in the picture so your little one now knows that he/she is not alone that you are not in danger now that you can get out if you need to, that it is okay, the feelings of long ago, without reprisal. The child needs to know that it is safe to experience the feelings/sensations and let go of the past.
- Get in touch with your need for boundaries. Sometimes when we are having a flashback we lose the sense of where we leave off and the world begins: as if we do not have skin. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or stuffed animal, go to bed, sit in a closet, any way that you can feel yourself truly protected from the outside.
- Get support. Depending on your situation you may need to be alone or may want someone near you. In either case it is important that your close ones know about flashbacks so they can help with the process, whether that means letting you be by yourself or by being there.
- Take the time to recover. Sometimes flashbacks are very powerful. Give yourself the time to make the transition from this powerful experience. Dont jump into adult activities right away. Take a nap, or a warm bath, or some quiet time. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself for having a flashback. Appreciate how much your little one went through as a child.
- Honor your experience. Appreciate yourself for having survived that horrible time as a child and respect your body.
- Be patient. It takes time to heal the past. It takes time to learn appropriate ways of taking care of self, of being an adult who has feelings, and developing effective ways of coping in the here and now.
- Find a competent therapist. Look for a therapist who understands the processes of healing from incest or sexual assault. A therapist can be a guide, a support, or a coach in this healing process. You do not have to do it alone ever again.
- Join a self-help group. Survivors are wonderful allies in this process of healing. It is a healing thing to share your process with others who understand so deeply what you are going through.
- Know that you are not crazy! You are healing!
Sections on this page have been adapted from: BearingThroughIt.org