Rape Crisis Scotland describes flashbacks as follows:
“A flashback is when you re-experience a frightening or painful event from the past. It tends not to be like an ordinary memory, but more a sudden and unexpected intrusion. Flashbacks can last from a few seconds to a few hours. The can happen at any time and anywhere, often without warning…you can have flashbacks in dreams (‘night-terrors’). They can be triggered by anything that reminds you of what you experienced. This might be someone who resembles the person who abused you in appearance, smell, voice, or mannerisms. It could be the time of year, music, a TV programme, colours, tastes, or smells. Flashbacks happen because, after something traumatic like sexual violence, it is natural for the brain to replay events to process or reach some understanding of the attack. During a flashback, you may feel that it is really happening to you now. This is very frightening. How you experience flashbacks is individual to you and what has happened. They are your mind trying to make sense of what happened.”
Flashbacks can invoke a myriad of emotions. You may experience extreme sadness, anger, fear, or confusion. Because it is a response to trauma, a flashback may make you feel like you are back in the moment of that trauma. Many people who experience flashbacks have a hard time remaining connected to reality – understanding that they are safe, knowing where they are, etc. – because their brain is essentially re-experiencing the trauma.
My own most recent flashback launched me into a panic attack. I started out feeling sad and disconnected; it was not yet apparent to me what was going on. I had been triggered by several things over the course of a week and my brain was trying to process it all. I was in a safe place with safe people – my husband and family. But after those initial feelings of sadness, I began to feel extremely angry. I do not get angry very easily but it got to the point where I wanted to hurt myself. We were on vacation in the middle of one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and I was ready to have a major freak out. Which only amplified the anger! “Why is this happening to me? And why NOW?”
I left the group. The anger was seeping from me. Alone in the woods, I cried and screamed and threw a small rock at a bigger rock. It makes no sense in hindsight but I felt as if I needed to release something from my body or else I would explode. Then it was time to climb a mountain. I acted pretty irrational for a little while. I was still angry. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to curl up in a ball. My pre-frontal cortex – that part of the brain that processes and uses logic – was offline.
Then came the fear. I was 100% safe but I was convinced that my abuser was following me. I started running (up a mountain). I panicked. My reality was no longer a beautiful summer day on a mountain by the sea. My reality was a particular assault. I could feel his hands on me. I could see the snow that had been falling that day. I could hear his voice.
Then the anger subsided and I burst into tears. I ran back to my husband – who I had asked to please not touch me, just give me space, it’s not you it’s me – and grabbed him. I sobbed and pleaded with him to keep me safe. My body was shaking. My vision was tunneling. He held me until my panic subsided and I calmed down. When I had finished crying, we continued the hike. I still did not feel safe for about an hour. I clung to my husband’s hand the whole way to the summit.
I have been triggered before and it never looks quite the same. That particular mountain panic attack was unique and the worst I had experienced since I was still in that abusive relationship. Thankfully, my career as a victim advocate – all the knowledge I have gained about how trauma affects the brain, grounding exercises, triggers, etc. – did help. While I lost a lot of my ability to reason during that flashback, there was still that quiet advocate-mode voice in my head saying, “You’re reacting to a trigger. It’s not real. Try to breathe. Try to focus on the colors around you. Do not yell at your family; you’re not mad at them. Take deep breaths.”
A better understanding of trauma and the brain can help you in a situation where you experience a flashback, a night terror or a panic attack. Knowledge cannot protect you entirely; your brain may still have moments where it is trying to process the trauma and, unfortunately, the rest of you is along for the ride. Grounding yourself in reality and managing flashbacks takes practice and it can be helpful to have a plan in place when you are feeling emotionally stable and safe.
I hate that something that happened to me almost a decade ago can cloud my sunny days now. It bothers me because I feel like he has a power over me that he should never have been allowed to have. But, as my husband reminded me on that hike, “It’s not your fault”. If you are with someone who is experiencing a panic attack, respect their feelings. What is happening to them is very real even if it seems like an overreaction (it’s not). Telling them what to do or how to feel – “calm down, stop, don’t panic, it’s okay!” – is not helpful. Crowding them or hugging them can also be very detrimental. Remind them to breathe. Keep your voice low. Help them reconnect with reality by asking them to count or to tell you the colors they see. Or just do not say anything. Be with them in that moment and keep them safe. As they begin to calm down, ask them if they would like a drink, a tissue, a blanket. If they have shared something that helps them, do your best to find it (i.e. a weighted blanket or a stress ball).
There are plenty of resources on-line with exercises and techniques for when you are approaching or experiencing flashbacks and/or a panic attack (for example, 6 Ways to Stop a Panic Attack When it’s Already Happening). I have linked several throughout the article. Different things work for different people because no flashback or panic attack or nightmare is exactly like another.
What has been helpful for you?