Facebook Pixel

When the Mind Releases: Flashbacks and Sexual Abuse

By HERWriter
Rate This

With an estimated one-third of children experiencing sexual abuse before they reach the age of 18 (www.aaets.org), it is not surprising that many young people carry the emotional and physical memories of those traumas into adulthood, often without knowing it. Underlying the ultimate physical abuse is the trauma of being hurt by someone we were supposed to be able to trust. A child’s mind has a very hard time processing this contradiction, and for many abused children they erect barriers around that realization and the related psychological pain, until some point later on in life when the mind simply can’t carry that weight anymore, or until such time that a person is better able to deal with those emotions.

A flashback is the mind’s way of releasing some of the pressure that’s build up over time.

Tremors and Volcanoes

Think of a flashback as a volcano.

Sometimes there are tremors before the explosion of memory. Things that happen in a survivor’s life that can give her a hint that something was not right in her past, or that perhaps get her thinking very clearly about someone or some occasion in her past are tremors and can be a warning of what might come; that the mind is about to release a tidbit or long flow of memories.

The release is actually the explosion from the volcano. The emotional pressure builds to such a point that one particular experience, or sometimes a combination of external experiences, triggers the eruption. It could be a scene in a movie or a book, a touch, or the smell of cologne. In the blink of an eye, the survivor is transported again into the body of her younger self and into the hands of a sexual predator. Repressing the memories of abuse isn’t exclusive to children, though. Adults who experience traumas may experience these tremors and explosions of memories as well.

Like volcanic eruptions, there’s no way to really anticipate what will set it off, or when it will actually go off. There is no way to predict what will “trigger” the tremors off or the actual onset of the memory. When does the mind ultimately decide it needs the release?

Interestingly, even though a flashback is a memory flash, a survivor may not actually be able to remember what happened during the flashback. It’s just a supreme awareness that something bad happened. It’s like having a nightmare—you know something bad had happened, your body feels the stress of it, but you can’t remember what it was. Others will remember with great accuracy what happened during their flashback.

Flashbacks can also happen in sequences, meaning there may be not just one, but a series of them that open up a little more recollection with each burst.

The only thing that is consistent between all survivors who experience flashbacks is that, regardless of how many or their particular abuse history, the survivor is once more victimized and traumatized. They are forced to relive the trauma and pain the only difference this time is the body and mind remember the emotions and can leave a survivor scrambling for a sense of security and safety.

Surviving the Lava Flow of Memories

There is no escaping the flow of emotions and sensations that often accompany a flashback. And, ultimately, despite how painful and traumatizing the whole experience is, it is actually healthy for the mind and body to get that release. It gives a survivor a chance to deal with those emotions and experiences so she is mentally healthy enough to build healthy relationships with herself and with others. So long as this is kept buried, a part of her will always be a victim to it. There will be some experiences that may always lay buried, but usually at a psychological and physiological cost to the victim and to those around them.

Since there is no way of really controlling what triggers a flashback, and there is no “statute of limitations” on when the flashbacks may come—some survivors experience flashbacks even in a safe, secure, healthy relationship decades (well into grandparenthood) after the initial abuse—it is difficult to completely avoid situations that may or may not trigger a flashback. In the case of a safe, secure environment, this may actually be a trigger in itself and somewhere in the subconscious a survivor’s mind figures that it’s okay to let this go now that it doesn’t need to cover it up anymore.

And, as painful as they are, it is important to not bury those emotions again. Find someone—a friend, pastor, counselor—in whom you can trust and on whom you can rely to be a listening ear, provide gentle comfort and solace, but who will also help you work through those emotions and experiences. Acknowledging what happened and that it happened is key to making the journey from victim to survivor again.

Unfortunately for a sexual abuse survivor, that journey may have to be taken more than once, but she doesn’t have to do it alone.

Our A Safe Place community forum is a private group for those victims and survivors of sexual abuse to find comfort and solace and counsel so no one has to feel alone or be alone. Please join us there if you’re hurting and dealing with one of these flashback experiences.

Sources: American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (“Sexual Abuse: Surviving the Pain” by Barabara E Bogorad, Psy.D, A.B.P.P, www.aaets.org); Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre (www.fsacc.ca)

Add a Comment3 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

For my entire life, I have had just one memory... a painful one of abuse by my father. I don't even know if I can call it abuse. It is a memory of very uncomfortable interaction. He held me down on his lap... and there was more. My father died when I was 13 so I am pretty sure this happened within a year or two of his death. I remember he was very strict with me, and I remember being uncomfortable around him. At his wake I remember losing it, and collapsing to the ground when I saw him lying in the coffin. I did not go to the burial. My mother felt I was too traumatized by his death. From that day I never shed another tear over losing him.

I have never said a word about my memory to my mother as I didn't want her to ever feel responsible. It definitely affected my life. I have had failed marriages, relationships, and never really have felt at peace. I KNOW this happened, this is real, and after 40 years of keeping it inside, I am having trouble burying it. I am afraid that once I seek counseling, which I am going to do, that it will open it all up and I will remember even more abuse.

I do not know what to do. My mother is now 76 years old. I have two brothers who idolized my father. If this comes out, my family will be destroyed.

April 17, 2016 - 11:28am

I understand this all too well, as I was sexually abused for 3 years while I was 7, 8 & 9 years old. I blocked it out of my mind until it came out as a teen in group therapy. I started remembering it all and when I told my mom, she made me go to a hypnotherapists and I had to relive all the painful memories. I did have flashbacks all through my life and it interfered with my sexual relations until I was in my 30's. After many years of therapy and processing these issues, I now have a healthy happy partnership and sex life. I also counsel women and couples who have sexual hang-ups and deep-rooted emotional issues around intimacy.

April 19, 2011 - 3:57pm
HERWriter (reply to alluragrace)

Thank you for sharing your story, alluragrace. I will be addressing hypnosis in another article. Sometimes it's hard to know whether to leave the memories alone or to bring them out so they can be dealt with. In some ways, I believe the flashbacks are a way for the body to try to bring them to the surface, so long as they remain buried they can eat away at you. But that doesn't make the whole process of working through them any easier.

April 19, 2011 - 4:14pm
Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you agree to EmpowHER's terms of service and privacy policy
Add a Comment

We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

Emotional Health

Get Email Updates

Emotional Health Guide

Have a question? We're here to help. Ask the Community.


Health Newsletter

Receive the latest and greatest in women's health and wellness from EmpowHER - for free!