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Flashbacks of Sexual Abuse | How to Cope And Heal

Jun 08, 2023
Last updated Dec 11, 2023
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Sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime that often leaves survivors with long-term physical, mental, and psychological consequences. In the aftermath of the abuse, and sometimes for many years afterward, several sexual abuse survivors experience flashbacks, which are memories of the past triggered by something in the present. Learning how to cope with these flashbacks is essential to healing and overcoming the trauma of sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse is never the fault of the survivor. If are a sexual abuse survivor, remember that you deserve to put your past behind you and move on with your life. Edwards Henderson is an experienced group of lawyers who are dedicated to helping sexual abuse survivors such as yourself or your loved ones reclaim their voice and seek justice against those who committed sexual violence. Our sexual abuse lawyers can explain to you your legal options and help you hold the at-fault parties accountable for the crime. Our consultations are 100% free and confidential, which means we do not charge until you win.

Key Takeaways

  • Survivors of sexual abuse often experience flashbacks, a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD
  • Survivors can use different techniques to learn how to cope with flashbacks and regain control of their lives
  • A sexual abuse lawyer can help survivors hold their abuser accountable so they may get a sense of justice and closure

What is a Flashback?

A flashback is a memory of a past traumatic event that feels like it is happening in the present moment. Sexual abuse survivors commonly experience flashbacks of the abuse, which can be distressing and overwhelming, and sometimes, difficult to manage as well.

Flashbacks can be triggered by ordinary experiences connected with the senses, such as a particular smell or a specific tone of voice that may be associated with the abusive experience. Sexual assault survivors are often unable to avoid or anticipate these triggers, making it hard to feel safe in everyday situations.

There are two theories concerning why flashbacks happen. The first theory suggests that the brain replays the traumatic incident to try to understand it. The second theory is based on our “fight or flight” response which triggers us and causes our body to instinctively repeat life-saving behaviors from the past. While flashbacks may be experienced in different ways, some of the common features include:

  • Fragmented and not organized: Flashbacks often feel as though they are out of order or that certain parts of your memory are missing. This can make flashbacks even more confusing and distressing.
  • Involuntary: Flashbacks can happen suddenly and without warning, leaving the individual feeling powerless.
  • Triggered by certain situations: A specific sight, smell, or sound can trigger a flashback and make it feel like the traumatic event is happening again.
  • Feels as though it is happening now: During a flashback, the individual may experience the same physical sensations and emotions as they did during the actual traumatic event.
  • The memory feels frozen in time: The survivor may feel stuck in the past and unable to move on from the trauma.
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What Are the Types of Flashbacks?

Flashbacks work as an involuntary recall of traumatic events that cause a person to feel like they are reliving the experience. Sexual abuse survivors may experience one or more of the following categories of flashbacks:

  • Visual: Visual flashbacks involve vivid images of the traumatic event triggered by sensory cues. These images can be distressing and cause the person to feel like they are back in the traumatic experience.
  • Auditory: These involve hearing sounds, voices, or noises associated with the traumatic event. For example, a survivor may experience a flashback from the sound of a door slamming shut or after hearing someone speaking in a similar tone as their abuser.
  • Physical: Physical flashbacks involve feeling physical sensations that remind you of the abuse. Survivors may feel like they are being touched, held down, or even experiencing pain. These sensations can be very intense and cause panic or dissociation from the present moment.
  • Sensory: These types of flashbacks involve re-experiencing sensory information associated with the traumatic event, like smells or tastes. These sensory cues can be triggered by external stimuli and may cause intense distress to the survivor.
  • Emotional: Emotional flashbacks involve re-experiencing the intense emotions associated with the traumatic event, such as fear, anger, or sadness. These emotional cues can be triggered by a range of stimuli and may lead to the survivor feeling overwhelmed and/or helpless.

Sexual Abuse and Flashbacks

Flashbacks are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by sexual abuse and are typically triggered by something that reminds the survivor of the trauma. Since the trauma of sexual abuse largely impacts the brain, specifically the limbic system, a survivor’s brain may remain in a state of hyper-vigilance for several days or years after the abuse. In other words, the brain is on high alert for any sign of danger and ready to enter the “fight or flight” mode when it associates a detail in the present with a traumatic memory of the past.

The frontal lobe of our brain is responsible for communication and decision-making. In the aftermath of sexual violence, it can struggle to separate the past and present, making it difficult for survivors to recognize when a situation is safe. This triggers flashbacks and further exacerbates the trauma already experienced.

Sexual abuse survivors may live in constant fear of when the next flashback may occur, making it difficult for them to fully engage in daily activities or avoid triggering situations and events. While survivors may attempt to set boundaries to manage flashbacks, it can be challenging for them to live a life free from flashbacks.

How To Cope With Sexual Abuse Flashbacks

It can be difficult to cope with flashbacks. Fortunately, there are some beneficial techniques for managing flashbacks:

During the flashback:

  • Find a safe, quiet place: If you feel a flashback coming on, find a safe, quiet space so you may feel more secure and in control of the situation.
  • Remind yourself that this is a flashback of a past event: Remind yourself that this is a flashback and not a current event. This is a vital step for dissociating from the traumatic event that is triggering the flashback.
  • Tell yourself you are strong enough to survive this: A flashback may make you feel like you do not have any power over your situation. Remind yourself that you have already survived the trauma, and you have the strength to survive this flashback.
  • Actively become aware of the present using your senses: Focus on your surroundings and use your senses to help ground yourself. Focus on the sights, sounds, smells, and textures around you to help you connect to the present and reduce the intensity of the flashback.
  • Ground yourself: Use grounding techniques such as tapping your hands or feet, or tensing and relaxing your muscles to help ground yourself to the present moment.
  • Breathing practices: Slow and measured breaths can help you relax and reduce the intensity of the flashback. Take a long and deep breath in through your nose, hold for a few seconds, and then slowly exhale it through your mouth.
  • Do what makes you feel safe: If you have a safety plan in place, follow it. This may include calling a trusted friend or family member, a helpline number, or a therapist or support group. It may also involve doing something comforting like taking a warm bath or listening to calming music.

After the flashback:

  • Take time to regain control: When a flashback happens, you may feel a loss of control over your thoughts and emotions. To regain your sense of control, try grounding techniques like listening to music or focusing on your breath. Remind yourself that you are safe in the present moment and the flashback will pass.
  • Seek help from a trusted person: Sometimes, talking to someone you trust is a helpful way to cope with a flashback, whether it is a friend, family member, therapist, or support group. Let them know what you are going through and how they can help support you. You may also spend some time with your pet or take them out for a walk.
  • Process your flashback:  Once you feel safe and grounded, it may be helpful to process your flashback with a trauma therapist or counselor. An experienced mental health professional can help you work through the emotions and memories triggered during the flashback and provide you with coping mechanisms for the future.
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How To Heal From Sexual Abuse Flashbacks

When it comes to sexual abuse, there is no right or wrong way to feel or react. Survivors who undergo flashbacks often feel overwhelmed by the intense and unpredictable nature of the abuse. If you are a sexual abuse survivor, you should know that there are ways that can help you heal from sexual abuse flashbacks:

  • Awareness of the triggers or warning signs: Identify triggers that lead to your flashbacks, like smell, sound, place, or person. This can help you understand that these are just triggers and you can start learning how to cope with them.
  • Identification of experiences leading to flashbacks: While sexual abuse can happen to anyone, it is important to fully comprehend what happened so you can better cope with potential triggers.
  • Writing down your triggers: Writing down what triggers you can help better understand them and track your progress as you work to reduce their impact on your life.
  • Seek professional help from a licensed mental health professional: A trauma therapist can help you process your feelings, develop coping mechanisms, and work with you on your recovery.
  • Focus your energy on your present: Focusing your energy on the present can reduce the impact of flashbacks. Engage in activities that bring you joy and help you be in the moment.
  • Be patient with yourself and practice self-compassion: Healing from sexual abuse flashbacks takes time and patience. Practice self-compassion by working with a therapist and treating yourself with love and respect.
  • Speak to a sexual abuse attorney to move forward when ready: If you are ready to seek legal action against your abuser and third-party organizations that may have enabled the crime, speak to a sexual abuse attorney who can provide legal guidance and support you through the process.

Helpful Resources for Sexual Abuse Survivors:

When struggling with the aftermath of sexual abuse, it is important to know that you are not alone. There are numerous resources available to help you cope and heal from the trauma you have experienced:

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How Can A Sexual Abuse Attorney Help Me?

A sexual abuse attorney can provide survivors with invaluable assistance and help them understand their legal options, such as whether they want to file a civil sexual abuse lawsuit against their abuser and any third-party organizations such as a school, church, or hospital that did not take preventative action or covered up the abuse.

Sexual abuse survivors can file a civil sexual abuse lawsuit to pursue compensation for emotional, psychological, and physical injuries. An experienced sexual abuse lawyer can guide you through the legal process, help you understand your rights, and fight for the compensation you deserve. Overall, working with a sexual abuse attorney can provide you with a sense of empowerment and hope for the future.

At Edwards Henderson, our sexual abuse lawyers have extensive experience working on both adult and child sex abuse cases. We understand the trauma and devastation caused by sexual abuse, and are dedicated to helping you or your loved one find justice. We will stand by your side to advocate for your rights and help you secure the maximum possible compensation. While no amount of money can turn back time, it can help you ensure others are not similarly hurt and that you have access to resources such as therapy, medication, and treatment that you may need to heal from sexual abuse and associated flashbacks.

Speak to a Compassionate Sexual Abuse Attorney

Confronting the trauma of sexual abuse takes immense courage. You may feel overwhelmed in the face of their pain, but remember that help is available. Our team of compassionate attorneys understands the challenges that survivors of sexual abuse face when seeking justice, and we will support them throughout the legal process.

Whenever you are ready, feel free to contact us and take the next step toward holding your abuser accountable. Our team works tirelessly to ensure survivors’ voices are heard and their rights are enforced. Contact us and speak to our attorneys today.

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Article Sources

  1. Flashbacks
  2. Common Symptoms for Child Sex Abuse Survivors (Flashbacks)
  3. RAINN
  4. NSVRC
  5. The Trevor Project
  6. ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline
  7. MaleSurvivor

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