“It’s been years since I was raped, but I can’t get it out of my head! It’s driving me crazy!” Comments like this are often everyday occurrences for abuse survivors. Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and nightmares are all related events that are core to the PTSD symptoms that many abuse survivors have to contend with. It is bad enough having to cope with the ongoing effects of being sexually molested or raped, but it is all the more horrifying to have the memories of it disturbing everyday daily life and sleep.
It is helpful to remember that these intrusions are the brain’s way of trying to help us process the experience on the one hand, while also trying to keep us safe on the other hand. Think of it as a process which starts with the original experience being so terrifying, upsetting or even confusing that a deep part of us is overloaded with intense feelings it is not designed to cope with. This overload starts a cascade of changes that involve our losing our sense of the world being a safe place and becoming unable to trust others. When this is combined with the added difficulty that many survivors have an underlying sense of self blame, then it is no wonder that the survivor lives in a constant state of stress.
The added complication is that while the survivor has to live with more stress than the average person, at the same time their ability to cope with stress is reduced. This means that it often takes less to trigger a survivor into feeling overwhelmed and so they become worn out because many survivors experience a stress that others find average, the survivor will experience as too much to cope with.
This is partially the reason the survivor finds so many things in everyday life reminding them of their sexual trauma. It is as if a deep part in the brain is saying to us the whole time that the trauma proved that life isn’t safe and is trying to connect the dots between everyday life experiences and the original trauma. The trouble is, our more conscious self can realise that these connections are not real- “all men are not dangerous” but the deeper part somehow control us and continues to push intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares into our awareness.
It can take many people years to get on top of the flashbacks and intrusive memories, and we can all admire those who keep on working to find their own freedom. But hopeful, you may be one of the lucky ones who can find some peace more easily. One survivor who had been abused as a child told me the story of struggling for years with intrusive memories and flashbacks of her perpetrator’s face leering at her. The experience always terrified her. Her counsellor had suggested that instead of panicking and trying to avoid seeing the face, that she should try the opposite. Her counsellor said that every abuser, every rapist had an inadequacy somewhere in their soul, and this is what stopped them from having normal loving relationships. The survivor reacted to this because the perpetrator had terrified her with his threats and she had felt so powerless that she had wished she could die. Every flashback reminded her of this. But the survivor said she would look into the abusers face the time she had a flashback and look to see how the inadequacy showed itself. The next week, she was smiling at her session, she had not had a single flashback in the intervening week.
It seems that, while the fear response to the flashback is normal, that if we can calm ourselves inside and remind ourself that it is only a flashback- it is not real, and we don’t have to panic or try to avoid it. When we can do this, then we can start to tell ourself during the memory or flashback that it is actually a “lie”. We are no longer under the control of the abuser, we have our own power and choice, and we can remind ourselves of the action plan we could take to keep ourself safe, or to regain safety, if we ever found ourself in that kind of situation again. It may take a lot of trials to get it right, but it can be part of the process of reclaiming our own mind and life and emotions back from the abuser. Let us know how it goes!