How to manage flashbacks and enjoy sex after sexual assault
Trigger warning: This story includes mention of sexual assault that may be upsetting to some readers. Hence, reader’s discretion is advised.
“Stop”, I screamed and ran off to the bathroom to take a shower. I just had a flashback of a past sexual assault. This is a reality for many who, during a safe sexual encounter, feel they are experiencing the previous assault over again.
I was sexually assaulted at the age of 16; became pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. It was a challenging time. Finally, I got therapy two years later because I couldn’t afford it earlier. On my path to heal and help others, I started learning about sex and finally took a certification in it. Thus my journey towards becoming a sexologist and a sex educator to help others who like me can’t afford therapy.
Flashbacks happen when a memory of the past, usually trauma, feels like it’s happening again. Think of your brain as a personal computer with the trauma experience as a file saved in this PC. Triggers would be keywords; whenever you are exposed to a similar smell, touch or environment, the keyword appears on the search bar and the entire memory unfolds. That is basically what happens when you get flashbacks. They don’t just happen when you are sad; they can occur even when you aren’t moody. It just takes a trigger to unfold the replay of the events.
Statistics shows that rape and sexual assaults are severely underreported. This is an alarming number of people who most likely suffer from flashbacks, but in secrecy.
I used to get flashbacks frequently before therapy helped me. Becoming an educator to help others helped even more. Here, I will be sharing tips on what to do, as a survivor and as a sexologist.
If you are in the middle of a sexual activitiy, which is not just limited to penetrative sex, and have a flashback, stop immediately. Trying to ignore flashbacks would lead to arousal non concordance, which is the disconnect between your emotional/mental pleasure and your bodily pleasure.
When you disengage, you will experience breathlessness, sweat and panic. You need to regulate yourself and there are many ways to do that.
You can try feeling your breath and taking deep breaths from your mouth and releasing from your nose.
Another way is to focus on an object with all your senses. For me, water works the best. I feel the flow and the pattern; observe the color and the pressure of the flow; the amount of time it takes to flow down etc.. How this works is that our brain cannot fully concentrate on two things at the same time; so we become focussed on the present and the flashback disappears.
Identify your triggers
Every flashback happens as a result of a trigger. Like I said earlier, it could be a similar smell, song or environment. Maybe you were held in the same position as your abusers did. Maybe your partner used the same words your abuser used. It could even be the color of the curtain, cushions or even the apartment.
For me, I was held in the position my abuser held me while I pleaded and watched him abuse me. Being in that same position automatically alerts my mind of danger and then I get flashbacks.
I carefully observed and journaled when I had these experiences and that was it. Therapy also pinpointed my trigger was the position in which I was abused in. For someone else it might be the smell, a similar voice or background sound.
Notify your partner
When I discovered my trigger, I notified my partner that I didn’t want this sex position because I get flashbacks. Inform your partner about your situation so you both can work towards a solution to eliminate exposure to triggers and get adequate professional help.
Always remember you are not damaged, you are not a commodity. You are a badass person with purpose and value; and abuse never defines you.
I felt really vulnerable writing this piece but I hope it helps someone.
Sending you love and healing vibes,
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About the author: Amos Sanasi is a demographer, sexologist and the founder of Nigeria’s first sex-positive brand Revaginate NG which disseminates comprehensive sex information and sexual accessories, especially for those with disabilities. She tweets at @thesanasi.