What Is a Flashback?
Our minds have a remarkable ability to recall information and events. However, for survivors of child sexual abuse, this ability can feel more like a curse than a blessing. When we experience an event with powerful emotions or sensations (especially ones like fear, distress, or pain), sometimes our memories of that event are stored in a way that our brain can quickly access to remind us to avoid similar situations in the future.
When these memories come back suddenly to our mind involuntarily and intrusively, they are described as flashbacks. Put another way, flashbacks consist of “the intrusive re-experiencing of traumatic experiences in the present.”1
The neurological cause of flashbacks has not yet been determined. Nevertheless, for individuals who cope with the effects of past abuse, flashbacks can greatly disrupt their lives and interfere with wellbeing.
What Does Having a Flashback Feel Like?
Flashbacks and intrusive memories are experienced in a broad range of ways that are influenced by many factors. Some trauma survivors describe flashbacks as abrupt and frequent—sometimes like watching repeating images in their mind’s eye or recalling sounds from their memory. Others experience vivid recollections in which they, in a sense, relive parts of the traumatic event from their past. In these cases, survivors can even have difficulty distinguishing their memory from what is happening around them in the present moment.
For many survivors, experiencing a flashback is extremely distressing. They are typically caused by triggers and can sometimes lead to other unsettling symptoms such as panic attacks or dissociation. Flashbacks may leave the survivor with feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, or uncertainty about how to prevent one from happening again. Whatever the outcome, these recurring intrusive memories of the traumatic events interrupt survivors’ lives and bring frequent reminders of the pain they continue to carry.
How Are Flashbacks Connected to Child Sexual Abuse?
It is quite common for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to endure flashbacks and sudden intense memories of their abuse, even after many years have passed from when the abuse occurred. This is because the trauma of the abuse continues to impact the brain,2 even after the abuse itself is no longer a part of the survivor’s life. It does so by keeping the limbic system, the part of the brain that seeks to avoid pain and find relief, in a state of hypervigilance. This hypervigilance first occurred during the abuse in childhood, when the limbic struggled to keep the survivor safe and to process what was happening.
Since then, the limbic system—for many survivors—remains on edge, always on high alert for any signs of danger. And when it does associate a detail in the present with a traumatic memory, the limbic system can be triggered into fight, flight, or freeze mode. In these moments of heightened distress, the memory can become so vivid that the limbic system links the sensations of the past— such as sight, sound, and smell—with the sensations of the present. And the frontal lobe, the analytical part of the brain, struggles to catch up and communicate the separation between the past and present. The end result can escalate into a flashback, where the aspects of a traumatic memory can seem like they are playing out in real time.
Due to the upsetting nature of flashbacks, survivors may live in high levels of anxiety over when the next flashback may occur. They may avoid settings, events, or situations out of fear that another flashback takes place. And while setting boundaries is an important part of managing the effects of trauma, sometimes distressing symptoms like flashbacks can make it more difficult for survivors to live the lives they truly want.
How to Manage and Prevent Flashbacks
While flashbacks are a common symptom of child sexual abuse, managing them is possible. If you are experiencing flashbacks at a high degree of frequency or intensity, we strongly recommend you seek professional therapeutic support. Trained trauma counselors, therapists, and medical professionals can offer solutions that provide relief to this complex and difficult challenge. With their help, you can work to identify what stimuli is most likely to trigger a flashback and what you can do when such flashbacks occur.
You can also implement certain tools and strategies that will help strengthen the connection between your limbic system and frontal lobe. Through this strengthened connection, your frontal lobe will be better able to communicate to the triggered limbic system that you are no longer in danger and there is no need to fight, flight, or freeze.
As you take these steps, it is also important to be patient with yourself. Recurring and intrusive memories of painful moments from the past are frightening and difficult to cope with. However, survivors of trauma can find empowerment when they understand that this particular symptom is an understandable response to a painful experience or series of events. Becoming more aware of how you personally experience flashbacks or intrusive memories—and understanding ways that you can self-soothe when these symptoms occur— are great first steps toward managing them and their impact on your day-to-day life.