What are flashbacks?
Flashbacks usually happen suddenly, without warning. They are vivid memories of a traumatic event that feel like they are happening now. You may re-experience what you saw, heard, smelt, felt and your body's reactions, such as a fast heartbeat. They can last from seconds to hours.
What do flashbacks feel like?
Flashbacks feel different for different people. They can happen at anytime, even when we're feeling happy.
They can be very scary and distressing as you re-experience your trauma and it can feel like it's really happening. You may see what happened as single images or like a film, hear sounds or words, or feel as though you're being touched. You might be able to smell or taste something linked to your trauma and your body might react the same way by your heart beating fast or sweating.
Flashbacks can make you feel vulnerable, anxious and scared. They can leave you feeling isolated and not wanting to talk to anyone. You might experience intense feelings of anger, shame or numbness.
Why do I have flashbacks?
We don't really understand why flashbacks happen but there are two current theories:
- Flashbacks are your brain replaying a traumatic event to try to understand it. It tries to work out what exactly happened and whether the situation could have been avoided.
- You have a flashback when your brain has recognised similarities between your current situation and your experience of sexual violence. Your 'fight or flight' response is triggered and your body reacts instinctively and causes the same reactions that kept you alive during the last time your life was in danger. This theory suggests flashbacks are an attempt to get you to repeat your previous life-saving behaviour.
Who has flashbacks?
Anyone who has experienced trauma might experience flashbacks. They are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD was recognised after World War One, when many soldiers returned from battle with 'shell shock', causing them flashbacks, nightmares and extreme anxiety.
Survivors of war are still often affected by PTSD and flashbacks. They are also experienced by people who've been involved in traffic accidents, natural disasters or any other deeply upsetting or traumatic experience, including sexual violence and abuse.
What causes flashbacks?
Flashbacks can happen at any time. They can happen when we're feeling really good about ourselves and happy, when we are really relaxed, when we are feeling low, even when we're sleeping.
Sometimes they happen when we are 'triggered'. This is when we come across something that reminds us of our traumatic experience. This could be a familiar sound or smell. It could be hearing a song or watching television. It could be being in the place we were abused.
Flashbacks are a common response to sexual violence. You are not alone. There are things you can do to help manage and reduce flashbacks.