A flashback is a memory of past trauma which appears and feels as though the traumatic event is happening again. Flashbacks affect all the senses, even making you believe you smell the same smells, and feel the same contact on your body, as when you were assaulted. They can be just as terrifying and traumatic as the assault. Flashbacks are usually ‘triggered’ by stimuli similar to an occurrence in the original trauma, such as certain sensations or sights, events, or even thoughts. Flashbacks range in length and severity.
Flashbacks are actually the mind’s way of trying to make sense of what has happened. They can cause a lot of distress, so learning skills to help manage them is important for your recovery. Any professional counselling or support service with expertise in trauma will be able to help you with managing flashbacks.
Some people can experience panic attacks following an assault. These can take the form of distressing physical symptoms like difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, and shaking, along with feelings of intense fear that something bad will happen.
This phenomenon is normal after a traumatic experience and, like other post-traumatic symptoms, will usually resolve in time. However, panic attacks can lead to a kind of vicious cycle which can be debilitating. People find themselves worrying that they will have more panic attacks, which can lead to more anxiety and, unfortunately, actually increase the likelihood of further attacks.
Sexual assault can affect sleep. In order to sleep properly, we need to feel safe and secure. When a person has experienced trauma, his ability to trust and feel safe can be affected, which can result in insomnia or disturbed sleep. Constantly thinking about what happened, being fearful about safety, or worrying can keep a person awake at night. Any disruption to sleep can affect the ability to function during the day, and can cause lethargy, poor concentration, and irritability. Sleep disruption is experienced by almost all survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
Nightmares are very common following sexual assault. In some ways, nightmares are like flashbacks you have when you sleep. They might be very clear reminders of the assault, and can have the same distressing after-effects as flashbacks. They might also be about things that in some way symbolically represent the assault and your feelings about it. As well as the emotional and psychological impact of nightmares, they can also have physical effects (increased heart rate, sweating, breathing difficulties). If nightmares happen regularly they can cause anxiety about sleeping.
Recent trauma can also impact on concentration. You may find that the experience of sexual assault or abuse has affected your ability to concentrate or make decisions. It takes time to recover from the impacts of sexual assault and abuse and if you are in crisis, it can be wise to hold off making any major life decisions until things improve.