Many survivors of sexual trauma have flashbacks, often these are accompanied by panic attacks.
Panic attacks and flashbacks can be triggered by anything and everything. Common triggers are seeing or hearing about someone else's rape or abuse, seeing an abuser or someone who resembles an abuser, being touched in a sensitive place, hearing a phrase used by the abuser, the survivor's children reaching the age the survivor was when the abuse started, having a baby, TV programmes, music, the list is endless.
Panic attacks usually include the following symptoms: hyperventilation, (breathing to fast) accelerated heartbeat, dizziness, acute anxiety and sometimes a feeling of impending death. Unfortunately these symptoms make the flashback worse.
Hyperventilation is the main cause of other symptoms during a panic attack: tightness in throat and chest, dizziness, nausea and tingling in the hands and feet. By changing and calming your breathing, you can help the panic attack to finish more quickly. Take slow, deep breaths and try to breathe from the stomach instead of the upper chest. Breathe out slowly. Concentrate on your breathing. This should minimise other symptoms. Practise this method of breathing when you are calm, so that it comes naturally when you need to apply it during an attack.
Remember that the panic attack will end by itself, it won't go on forever.
You cannot die from a panic attack.
Flashbacks are when the survivor has a period of intense recall of the abuse situation. You may feel trapped inside the memory, and feel that it is actually happening in the present.
In the past I have tried many things to get control of flashbacks, including self-harming (others I know have used drugs and alcohol). Although these coping strategies seem to work short term, in the long run these methods add to the harm we have already suffered.
Try the breathing exercise outlined above.
Open your eyes and really look at your surroundings. Remind yourself that you are in a safe place.
Try to speak to someone, phone a supporter, ring a help line if you feel a flashback or panic attack coming on.
Remember that the flashback will pass and that the frequency of flashbacks will decrease and their power over you will lessen as your healing moves forward.
Talking with other survivors can help you feel less alone with the burden. It's reassuring to know that other people understand your symptoms. One of the most positive moves I made in my healing was reaching out to other people in my position, through support groups, message boards and forums.
We hope to bring you more, information in the near future. So if you have methods of coping that have worked for you with panic attacks and/or flashbacks, please contact us (you are the survivors and know what works) and I can add them here.
Article written by Pauline Carruthers
Common thoughts during a panic attack
I'm going to die.
I'm having a heart attack
I'm going to collapse/faint
I'm going to make a fool of myself.
People will think I am mad
I'm not safe.
Something terrible is going to happen.
I'm going crazy.
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