Flashbacks are recollections from the past. They may be pictures, sounds, smells, feelings, or the lack of them (numbness). Sometimes there is no actual visual or auditory memory. You may feel panicky, or trapped, you may feel powerless without knowing why. These experiences can also happen in dreams.
As a child you had to protect yourself from the emotional and physical horrors of abuse. In order to survive, that child remained locked inside, unable to express the feelings and thoughts of that time. It is as though we put that part of us into a time warp until it comes out in the present.
When that part comes out, the child in you is experiencing the past as if it were happening today. As the flashback happens, it is as if you forget that you have an ‘adult’ self available for comfort, protection and grounding. The extreme feelings and body sensations occurring are so frightening because they are not related to the reality of the present and many times seem to come from out of the blue.
We begin to think we are crazy and are afraid of telling anyone about what is happening. We feel out of control and at the mercy of our experiences.
We begin to avoid certain areas and situations, that we think triggered it. Sometimes flashbacks occur during any form of sexual contact, or it may be a person who looks or behaves and reminds you of the person who abused you, or it may be a situation today that stirs up similar trapped feelings (confrontation, angry people).
If you are feeling little… you may be experiencing a flashback. If you are having stronger feelings than you expect to have in the present situation … you are probably having a flashback
Flashbacks are normal
Flashbacks are sometimes called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
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.
Flashbacks sometimes make you feel insane because the child in you doesn’t know that there is an adult survivor available to help.
What Does Help?
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.
Get Grounded. This means stamping your feet on the ground so that the child 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 frightened we stop normal breathing. As a result our body begins to panic because we haven’t got enough oxygen. Lack of oxygen 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.
Re-establish to the present. Begin to use your five senses in the present. Look around and see the colours 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 or floor supporting you.
Talk to the child in you and tell her she is OK. It is very important that the child knows that the adult is around to take care for her. The child needs to know that it is safe to experience the feelings and let go of the past.
Find your boundaries. Sometimes when we are having a flashback things get out of proportion we lose the sense of where we end and the world begins; as if we do not have skin. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or soft toy, go to bed, sit in a cupboard… anything that you can do to make yourself feel safe.
Get help. You may need to be alone or you may want someone near you. In either case it is important that your friends and relations know about flashbacks so they can help with the process, whether that means letting you be by yourself or being there, whatever is right for you is right.
Take time to regain control. Sometimes flashbacks are very powerful. Don’t expect yourself to be able to do adult things immediately. Be kind and look after yourself do something that you enjoy. Don’t punish yourself, you and your child don’t deserve it.
Be patient. It takes time to heal the past. It takes time to learn ways of taking care of yourself, 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 process of healing from incest. A therapist can be a guide, a support, a coach in this healing process. You do not have to do it alone every 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 you are not going mad ……. you are healing!