A traumatic event is an occurrence that overwhelms our stress response system. When we endure trauma from someone close to us we can develop a trauma bond, especially when we experience trauma repeatedly by an attachment figure. A trauma bond occurs when the abused develops sympathy or affection towards their abuser. This can happen over any time period and rarely, if ever, develops into a healthy relationship. A trauma bond can cause the abused to experience guilt, confusion and self-judgment when analyzing their feelings towards their abuser, however this type of bond, while unhealthy, can originate from a protective place in the abused person.
Our brains have a survival response system, often referred to as the “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response. The body can activate this response system if our brains detect danger and turn on different pathways to get us out of the dangerous situation safely. This is the same response system that is responsible for the increase in adrenaline we experience after we hear an unexpected loud noise or are startled. It is our “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response system has allowed our species to survive for as long as we have and it is this system that becomes activated when we experience trauma.
Survivors who endure abuse from their loved ones, especially their parents as children or their partners as adults, go through an extremely complicated process to try to make sense of their relationship with the abuser. In an effort to allow the survivor to be able to function with their abuser the brain may turn on protective defense mechanisms in the form of dissociation, forgetting or minimizing abuse or even to take responsibility if the abuse with an attachment figure. For example, it would be extremely difficult for a child to function with the knowledge that they have to rely on the same person who is mistreating them so the brain may “try to make sense” of the abuse by using one of the above tactics to allow the child to still function with their abuser day to day. This is not the say that abuse is therefore alright. It is not and no one deserves to be mistreated or abused.
Forming a trauma bond with an abuser does not mean there is something wrong with the survivor but rather speaks to the survivor’s ability to survive in a dangerous, unpredictable environment. No one deserves to be in a dangerous, unstable relationship or environment. If you feel you may have this type of attachment to a person who has made you feel unsafe, please call our office to work through your emotions related to trauma bonding to enhance self-compassion and secure safety for current and future relationships.
Flashbacks are our brain’s way of processing traumatic events that we’ve experienced. Our subconscious taps into those important memories but they are not contained- meaning they tend to spill out everything related to the traumatic event. For many individuals, this experience can be just as terrifying as the initial event.
Flashbacks usually happen without warning. Most result from a “triggering” that occurs by an external experience. Triggers are typically sensory-based experiences that manifest via smells, sounds, tastes, textures that remind the person of the traumatic event. The sound of fireworks or a car backfiring can remind a soldier of gunfire. I once had a patient who would have flashbacks around flower shops, as the overwhelming smell of flowers would bring him back to his sister’s funeral.
Living with flashbacks is very difficult, but with practice there are some ways you can work through these disturbing events:
Remind yourself that you are in a safe place and having a flashback. Use that self-talk and tell yourself, as many times as necessary, that these are only memories until you can feel yourself begin to calm.
Sometimes using your five senses can help you to be in the present moment. If one sense is causing the flashback use your other senses to place yourself in the actual current environment. The tactile experience of stamping your feet on the ground can remind yourself that you are free to get away from any situation that has become uncomfortable for you. See more here on mindfulness tips.
Fear and panic causes our breathing to become shallow and erratic. Shallow our erratic breathing exacerbates the stress we feel in that moment because our body is literally panicking from a lack of oxygen. In these fearful moments, when we slow our breathing and take deeper and deeper breaths, we actually signal to our brain and body that everything is okay. One of my favorite breathing tricks is to trace one hand with the opposite. When you go up a finger breathe in, then breathe out as you trace back to the palm of you hand. Repeat till you are calm and your breathing is regular.
No one wants to remember their trauma, let’s face it it’s not an easy experience and I understand you want to move on and forget it NOW. However, our bodies and our minds need time to process what has happened. It’s normal, expected, and honestly needed to experience a full range of emotions. Honor your experience and yourself for making it through and surviving.
Going through trauma alone is not really advisable. I understand there may be feelings of shame, guilt, fear that are preventing you from feeling comfortable opening up. However, it is important for you to have supports
It’s important that you let loved ones know about your to help you through this process. Opening up to trusted loved ones can allow for them to help you work through flashbacks and process what has happened. You may also want to open up to a mental health professional to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening to you, how to cope with flashbacks and triggers and work through those difficult memories and emotions.
If you or a loved one is suffering from flashbacks and would like to explore treatment options, please be in touch, we would be happy to discuss how we may be able to help.