Our brains are hardwired to remember fear. This serves an important evolutionary purpose: We need to remember dangerous situations so we can avoid them later. For most people, this hardwiring is not a burden.
But if you have experienced trauma – violence, war, sex abuse, a car accident – it can become etched in your mind in ways that are far more harmful than helpful. Remembering trauma – or being triggered by something you associate with it – can cause horribly painful feelings and physical symptoms to resurface.
On its website, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has a very helpful page on understanding flashbacks, known more formally as post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of SNAP’s focus on clergy sex abuse, the page mainly talks about flashbacks to sex abuse experienced as a child.
SNAP notes that flashbacks to child sex abuse can be especially scary and jarring because victims may momentarily forget that they are adults and are out of immediate danger. When a memory is triggered – especially a repressed memory – the victim may suddenly feel like he or she is a child again; frightened and alone.
If you can relate to anything that has been said so far, please feel free to read the flashbacks page on the SNAP website. It explains how flashbacks often work and offers some suggestions for how to cope with the immediate, overwhelming feelings and sense of disorientation. It also offers a very important reminder that is worth repeating: “Know you are not crazy . . . you are healing!”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (related to any trauma) can negatively impact the rest of a person’s life if it is left untreated. For this and many other reasons, it is important to seek help from a trusted mental health professional and/or support groups.
If you or a loved one has been a victim of child sex abuse or some other violent crime, please know that you are not alone and that you may still be able to pursue justice in court. When you decide you are ready, please share your story with a compassionate victims’ advocacy attorney.