If you have experienced flashbacks in the past, please take care while reading this page. Some examples may be triggering.
I was travelling along okay and then ‘BANG’, from nowhere, I was straight back there. It spun me out. I had no idea what was happening.”
Many men and women who have experienced sexual abuse are subjected to flashbacks. Flashbacks appear as memories or fragments of memories from recent or past events. They can be jarring, painful and disruptive. Flashbacks can last a few brief seconds or involve extensive memory recall. They can occur day or night, when you are awake or asleep and can take you completely by surprise. They can be in the first person (where it feels like you are right there, seeing and experiencing things through your eyes) or the third person (where it can be like you are watching a movie in which you are the central character). Sometimes flashbacks can replay events of which you were previously unaware or had long forgotten.
Flashbacks can take many forms:
- Visual Memories: Images, three dimensional technicolour images, black and white, foggy or clear.
- Auditory Memories: Sounds like music, breathing, doors shutting, footsteps.
- Emotional Memories: Feelings of distress, hopelessness, rage, terror, dread, danger or a complete lack of feelings (numbness).
- Body Memories: Physical sensations including pain, nausea, gagging sensation, difficulty swallowing, feeling restricted, difficulty breathing.
- Sensory Memories: Experiences such as particular smells or tastes.
When a flashback is occurring, the present often becomes confused with the past: you can feel out of control, like you are going crazy. In response to these distressing memories people can develop breathing difficulties, experience dizziness, disorientation, muscle tension, pounding heart, shaking and an inability to concentrate. Flashbacks can leave you feeling fearful, confused and distressed. They can interfere with your life in that they can encourage you to avoid people, places and activities associated with them.
I know the abuse happened over 20 years ago, but it felt like I was in the room with her, the smell, the confusing mix of fear, panic and excitement. I just froze.”
Some problems you should be aware of
What can make flashbacks particularly difficult to acknowledge and deal with is the unrealistic idea that you should always be in control of your body and able to cope with anything. This can have men and women not only having to deal with uninvited flashbacks, but evaluating and being down on themselves for not managing better, seeing it as some sort of commentary on themselves as a person. The type of flashback that appears as an emotional response without any clear memory of an event in the past can be particularly troublesome in this regard.
What can help?
Many people work out their own way of coping with flashbacks, but here are some ideas that you may find useful:
- Find a safe quiet place where you can sit down.
- Tell yourself that you are having a flashback, that this is a memory from the past and that you can take care of yourself in the present.
- Remember that you can choose whether to remember and re-feel.
- You might want to say to yourself “I’ll let that memory pass by.”
- Breathe slowly and deeply. Learn to breathe from your diaphragm; put your hand there just below your navel and breathe so that your hand gets pushed up and down. Often when we are surprised or scared, we breathe more rapidly and reduce our oxygen intake. Lack of oxygen can enhance feelings of panic: it can result in pounding in the head, tightness, feeling faint, shakiness and dizziness. If you count slowly to five as you breathe out, it will help slow your breathing down and will calm you physiologically.
- Imagine that the images that you see are on a TV screen. Turn the sound down, turn it up again, then turn the TV off so that the images fade away.
- Actively ground yourself in the present:
- Stamp your feet; grind them around on the floor to remind yourself where you are now.
- Look around, notice what is going in your immediate vicinity: name the people, the place, the furniture, the lay of the land, colours, patterns, etc.
- Listen to the sounds around you: the traffic, voices, the washing machine, etc.
- Feel your body, notice how you are sitting, your clothes, feel the chair or floor supporting you.
- If flashbacks are particularly common, it can be a useful strategy to always wear items that did not exist back then, things that ground you in your current life, a watch, flash drive, coloured wrist band.
- Focus your attention on remembering something challenging, such as the lyrics to a particular song, friends birthdays or a favourite poem.
- Actively bring your awareness into the present by gently ‘pinging’ a band on your wrist, by splashing water on your face, by wrapping yourself in something warm – the physical sensations that are evoked are from the present, the content of the flashback is from the past.
It might be useful to let people around you know about the flashbacks and how they can work, so that you can receive support. Friends can help you to slow your breathing, to talk to you, to get you a warm drink. The purpose is to help reconnect with the present in a safe and supportive way.
Be kind to yourself
After experiencing a flashback you might want to rest or distract yourself for a while, have a sleep, a warm drink, relax and listen to some music, watch TV, play a computer game, do some gardening or just take some quiet time for you. Words of support and encouragement to yourself are more likely to help you deal with flashbacks than questioning and evaluating yourself.
Note: Although flashbacks can often be very unwelcome visitors in your life, sometimes they can bring forth information and feelings that fill in gaps that existed in your memory. Some men have described how they provided the ‘piece in the jigsaw’ that helped them make better sense of what happened. Finding a trained counsellor who can provide support and work with you in relation to the flashbacks and getting on with your life is worth considering.
Putting persistent flashbacks in their place
If a memory is known and accepted as part of your life experience it is less likely to bother you in the present, even if the event was upsetting and you wish it had never happened. What can make flashbacks particularly difficult is that they can surprise you, appear apparently out of nowhere as a partial memory or as flashes of an event of which you previously had limited recollection. If these memories keep reappearing and are getting in the way of you living your life, it can be useful to work out how come you are having flashbacks about these particular events or these people right now?
An awareness of the ‘trigger/s’ that stimulate these flashbacks can be useful, in that it makes the appearance of the memory understandable – “You’re not going crazy.”
When you are feeling safe, supported and relaxed, you might find it useful to consider or write down
- What was happening when the memory appeared?
- Where were you? Who was around? What were you feeling/thinking, smelling/hearing/seeing/sensing?
- Does this relate to an event in your past?
Sometimes what has triggered a flashback can be immediately visible (like driving past your old school, having sex). However, some uncomfortable memories can be triggered by larger changes in circumstances (starting a relationship, getting married or a partner becoming a parent). They can also be associated with a particular feeling of fear or panic. By noticing the possible triggers and how they might be related to a previous event in your life the associated memory becomes understandable. If then the same flashback appears again you do not need to spend time with it beyond registering its presence – you know it and what it refers to – now you can focus on taking care of yourself in the present.
Put energy into your life in the present
As indicated earlier, often the best thing you can do when a flashback occurs is to note its appearance, calm and relax yourself and then put your energy into doing what is important to you – living your life in the present. Below are some practical questions that can help diminish the influence of flashbacks by maintaining a focus on the present:
- How am I different now from the person who was abused or assaulted?
- How old am I now? Where do I live/work now?
- What options do I have now that I didn’t have then?
- Who can I ask for support and encouragement?
- How do I like to spend my time?
- Where do I want to put my energy now?
Applying the above strategies takes time and effort. It won’t happen overnight but slowly things will happen and the flashbacks with the help of therapy will ease and become more manageable.