Today I am struggling with flashbacks due to the constant news reporting of the Cardinal George Pell Court Committal Hearing of historical child abuse cases on the news. It is on the radio, TV, Internet, newspapers, everywhere. I can’t get away from it and it’s just bringing up all my own past experiences in a flashflood. It’s overwhelming. Seeing his face splashed across various media platforms is difficult as he was the one person who triggered my Complex PTSD to begin five years ago when the Royal Commission in Institutional Child Abuse in Australia was announced. When interviewed about his response to the Commission he flipplantly replied, “The Catholic Church is not the only Cab of the rank”. I went into shock at those words and went into a breakdown and have been struggling with Complex PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder every since.
It is ironic that now he is one of the accused paedophiles from the Catholic Church. It is huge news as he is the third highest ranking member of the Church after the Pope. It is doing a lot of damage to the reputation of the Catholic Church. I feel very sorry for the true believers of the Catholic faith. It must be very difficult for them. Meanwhile people like me have to cope with flashbacks and recurrent trauma each time cases like this come up in the news.
A flashback can feel as though you are actually being drawn back into the traumatic experience, like it is still happening or happening all over again. They can occur uninvited, stirring up images, sensations and emotions of the original event. A flashback can be so overwhelming to one’s sense of reality, that many who suffer from them believe they are reliving or re-experiencing their trauma. A flashback is able to mimic the real thing because it provokes a similar level of stress in the body. The same hormones course through your veins as did at the time of the actual trauma, setting your heart pounding and preparing your muscles and other body systems to react as they did at the time (Rothschild, 2010).
For flashbacks to be dampened, or even eliminated- they must first, accurately categorized. Categorizing refers to the process of placing an event, or a flashback, in time. In reality, a flashback is not a repetition or replay of a past event; it is a memory of that event. This is the case no matter how intense it its, or whether it can fool your mind into believing the trauma is really happening again or still going on. Often, a minor editing of very tense (example- “I was attacked”, rather than “I am being attacked”) can have a huge impact. Using the past tense not only helps people identify the current flashback as a memory, but also highlights that the event is over, and they are not currently in danger.
In addition it is helpful to ground into the present moment, and alleviate the overwhelming emotional responses associated with the flashback.
Ideas for managing when experiencing a flashback:
- NAME the experience as a flashback (example- this is a memory, NOT a recurrence of the actual event)
- Use LANGUAGE that categorizes the flashbacks as a “memory” (example- I was attacked,rather than I am being attacked
- Use the SENSES to GROUND self in your CURRENT environment:
- Name what you see, feel, hear, smell etc.
- Rub hands together
- Touch, feel the chair that is supporting you
- Wiggle your toes
- Favourite colour- find three things in the room that are “blue”
- Name the date, month, year, season
- Count backwards from 100
- Use an object as a grounding tool
It can be helpful to explore the patterns of flashbacks as well as dissociation. Identifying your experience of a flashback can provide helpful information:
1) How a flashback happens (triggers)
2) The internal experience (thoughts, feelings, sensations)
3) External reactions (coping)
This can lead to beginning to understand healthier ways to manage this intense experience.