Psychosomatic responses and flashbacks
Copyright Pandoras Project
Psychosomatic is a word used to describe the connection of the mind and the body. Oxford Dictionaries offer the following definitions:
1. Relating to the interaction of mind and body.
2. (Of a physical illness or other condition) caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress.
In short, psychosomatic responses are physical symptoms that originate from mental causes. You may be familiar with the medical term 'Placebo effect.' This is an example of a psychosomatic response. Flashbacks, "body memories," panic attacks, tension headaches, muscle pain, eating disorders, and insomnia are also examples of psychosomatic responses.
Psychosomatic responses can be caused by a number of things, and some are not as severe as others. After experiencing any kind of trauma you may feel intense distress in similar events. For example, after being in a car accident you may find yourself overly stressed in vehicles after wards. Or if you've been bitten by a dog you may be afraid of all dogs, whether or not they're threatening. Even when there is no physical danger, your mind reacts as if there is. In situations like these your mind uses psychosomatic responses as a kind of defense mechanism, or a survival instinct. Less severe reactions aren't generally hindering to every day life, but when you experience them as a result of more severe trauma they can be quite an obstacle (as many of us here know).
Psychosomatic Responses and Sexual Assault
Crisiscenter.org accurately states in their article entitled "rape trauma syndrome" that "there is no one way that victims respond to rape." It is true that each individual experiences different thoughts, feelings, and sensations after a trauma. Frequent psychosomatic responses include panic attacks, extreme anxiety, phantom pains or sensations, and flashbacks. These reactions are sometimes caused by outward stimuli - which can be physical, visual, auditory, olfactory (smells), or gustatory (taste) - while other times they seem to be caused by nothing at all. Victims may feel as though they are at the mercy of their own mind or body. Though unpleasant, these responses are natural and cannot always be prevented or controlled. C.S.W. Laurieann Chutis says the following about flashbacks in her essay called "flashbacks":
"Flashbacks are memories of past traumas. They may take the form of pictures, sounds, smells, body sensations, feelings or the lack of them (numbness). Many times there is no actual visual or auditory memory. One may have the sense of pain, panic, being trapped, or feeling powerless with no memory stimulating it. These experiences can also happen in dreams."
Psychosomatic Responses and Dissociative Amnesia
It is also true that the amount of time it takes to feel these things varies from person to person. Some victims have reported periods of memory loss after their assault. This is called dissociative amnesia and can last anywhere from hours, to weeks, to years. Some victims aged well into adulthood before recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse. This is another way in which psychosomatic responses act as a defense mechanism. As a support system for the body, the brain is unbiased in its processing of sensory input. In theory, by burying the memories of traumatic events the brain protects us, allowing us to continue life as if nothing happened. However that is not always the case. At times even if we lack the actual memories, we will experience the physical sensations associated with a traumatic event. These can manifest in a number of feelings, including shame, fear, pain, vulnerability, and hyper-vigilance. When these sensations present themselves without memories of trauma, they are very hard to understand. Victims may begin to feel as though they are 'going crazy,' unaware that their body is communicating with them about the trauma. Because they don't know the source of what they are feeling they may be hesitant to tell friends, family, or therapists. It may only be later, when their repressed memories resurface, that they make the connection.
I hope that this information has been helpful in understanding more about the occurrence of psychosomatic responses. For more information pertaining to psychosomatic responses and Rape Trauma Syndrome, see these articles from DVSAC.org and Crisiscenter.org, or speak to a mental health professional.
Oxford English Dictionary