Many men who have been subjected to sexual abuse experience flashbacks. Flashbacks are memories or fragments of memories from recent or past events. They can be jarring, painful and intrusive. Flashbacks can last a few brief seconds or be very drawn out and detailed.
Flashbacks can be visual, auditory (sounds), emotional, physiological, and/or sensory (smells, tastes, touch).
One of the most confusing things about flashbacks is that they can seem like you are right back in the situation. If the flashback is related to times when someone was doing something sexually abusive to you, this can be extremely distressing.
Flashbacks are often triggered by things or events in the present. Triggers can be very specific, like a certain smell or sound, or general, like some kind of personal crisis.
Although flashbacks can be very unwelcome and distressing, sometimes they can contain information and feelings that fill in gaps in your memory. Some men have said they provided the ‘piece in the jigsaw’ that helped them make better sense of what happened, especially if their memory is foggy or unclear.
It can be a good idea to find a counsellor to help you work out how these memories ‘fit’ or ‘don’t fit’ into place.
Tips for dealing with flashbacks
When the flashback happens…
Try to bring yourself back to the ‘here and now’. Deliberately and slowly notice what you can see, hear, and touch where you are right now. Touch your chair or the fabric of your clothes, and describe the texture to yourself (rough, smooth, etc).
Focus on your breathing. Deliberately slow down your breathing in and out. Count to 5 while breathing out. Try to breathe deep into your diaphragm.
Remind yourself that you are not back where the original event happened, but here in this place, in this time. Some people find it useful to ground themselves by touching their watch, wrist band or a piece of jewellery that they have now, but did not wear back then.
Asking yourself these questions can help bring you back to here and now:
- How old am I now?
- Where do I live/work now?
- What options do I have now that I didn’t have then?
- How am I different now from back then?
- Who can I ask for support and encouragement?
- How do I like to spend my time?
- Where do I want to put my energy now?
- After the flashback has passed…
Be kind to yourself
After experiencing a flashback you might want to rest or distract yourself for a while, have a sleep, a warm drink, relax and listen to some music, watch TV, play a computer game, do some gardening or just take some quiet time for you. Words of support and encouragement to yourself are more likely to help you deal with flashbacks than questioning and evaluating yourself.
Try and work out the triggers. Choose a time when you are feeling safe and steady, and think about your last flashback:
- What was happening when the memory appeared?
- Where were you?
- Who was around?
- What were you feeling/thinking, smelling/hearing/seeing/sensing?
- Does this relate to an event in your past?
If you can identify the triggers, your reactions begin to make more sense and become less confusing. You might still get triggered by these things, but it will be easier to put them in their place, understand what is going on and put yourself back on track.
You might want to explore these questions with the help of a counsellor. It is not always helpful to explore this by yourself if you are feeling unsteady, so try not to put yourself under pressure to ‘work it out’ on your own.