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)