People who have been through a life threatening event, such as a car crash, fight or rape sometimes find that the memory of that event keeps coming back to them in very realistic nightmares or waking nightmares called ‘flashbacks’.
It is normal to have nightmares and flashbacks for a few weeks after a terrible event has occurred. Most people recover automatically as they think about the event or discuss it with friends. However, for others the memory ‘gets stuck’ and it makes them feel as if the terrible event is happening to them over and over again (in flashbacks or nightmares).
The memory of the traumatic event can lead to people feeling afraid or angry most of the time. They may feel that the world is a very dangerous place and find it difficult to trust others. Some people even feel that they are ‘going crazy’ or are ‘possessed’ because the memories feel so real.
The reason why the memories cause problems and some of the difficulties they cause are explained in the comic strip below.
Terrible events can affect us in other ways too. If you don’t have nightmares or flashbacks but you do feel worried or sad because of things that have happened in the past you may find my page on feeling sad more useful.
How can we help?
One of the first and most helpful things we can do for someone who is experiencing flashbacks of a life threatening event is to explain to them what is happening. The memories feel very real, they are extremely frightening and they often make the person feel sick and dizzy. Many people have told me that they thought they were possessed or ‘going crazy’. But their strange experiences are just a result of a memory getting stuck in the ‘wrong’ part of their mind.
To stop the memories coming back in nightmares and flashbacks the best way to help is to talk about them repeatedly, in detail, so that the memory is processed properly. Memories about a life threatening event are often in a mess. They may be out-of-order or there may be parts missing. Thinking or talking about the event helps reconstruct the memory and connect it with the past.
This may sound like a simple solution but talking about an event that causes you so much fear and distress is a difficult thing to do. Some people don’t want to talk about the event because they feel very guilty or ashamed. They may feel the event was their fault or that they did something terrible.
One reason people prefer to speak to psychologists rather than a friend is that they know we will keep what they say confidential and it is usually difficult to shock us. We are used to hearing about terrible events and know that in life threatening situations we react so fast that we may do things that we would never normally do. Psychologist’s also have ways of making the process of talking about the event easier. We take things step by step and we have strategies we can teach you to use to stop you feeling ‘lost in the memory’.
Some people don’t feel ready to talk about what happened. That’s ok – we understand and we would never force someone to talk or do anything that they don’t want to do.
We can still help by teaching you how to cope with the memories when they trouble you, teaching you techniques to reduce your overall stress levels and helping you get back into the activities you enjoyed before the event
If you would like any more information please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Any questions or comments?
Did you find this article helpful? If you have any questions on this topic write them in comments section at the bottom of this page and I’ll reply to you as soon as possible. It would also be good to read any comments or opinions you may have.
Further Information …
I’ve included some links to websites that I have found useful below. You’ll notice that many of the links refer to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you have memories of a past traumatic event that you find very distressing and you can’t stop yourself thinking about you might receive a diagnosis of ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ’ (PTSD). However, you’d need a trained clinician to make that diagnosis for you. I tend not to use diagnosis except in special circumstances – you can read why here.
This page on the UK’s National Health Service website explains what PTSD is and how to treat it.
Mind (UK Charity) Guide to PTSD
Information from the UK Charity on Mind on how to deal with PTSD.
Dr. Baldwin is an American Psychologist who specialises in PTSD.
Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) guide to PTSD.
The UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists advice on PTSD.
Living Well’s page on Grounding Exercises
Grounding exercises help to bring you back to the present moment. They are helpful when you have a flashback or get caught up in very difficult memories.