Dealing With Flashbacks and Obsessive Thoughts

November 19, 2018

NOTE: This is the third installment of my Affair Series.  You can catch up on the first two installments here and here.

Curiosity and a desire to know are basic to our human nature.  When an affair is discovered, and our trust has been violated, the “need to know” desire can ramp up dramatically. And it’s a slippery slope. Sometimes you really can know too much for your own good, as flashbacks and obsessive thoughts can be a real challenge for the betrayed partner.

As the betrayed partner you have every right to know details – who the affair was with, how long it lasted, whether it was physical, and where and when the activity took place.  But full disclosure of every intimate detail, is often not in the long-term best interest of you or the relationship. Generally, the more graphic the sexual details or evidence, the more severe the obsessive thoughts and flashbacks become for the betrayed partner. It’s why we ask clients in affair recovery to be extremely careful about what they disclose and when they disclose it – and to include their therapist in the process.

But what do you do if the full disclosure has already happened – either by your spouse who is trying to come clean or by the affair partner? How can a betrayed partner free themselves of these intrusive thoughts?

There a few schools of thought on this. I’ll be honest, I think some of them work and some of them, not so much. I’m a skeptic by nature and if I haven’t seen something work well, I’m going to tell you.

For instance, Thought Stopping. This is a very common Cognitive Behavior Technique where you are instructed to envision a stop sign and yell “Stop!” every time you have the obsessive thought.  Another one – the Rubber Band. The idea with this one is to wear a rubber band around your wrist and every time the obsessive thought enters your mind you pop the rubber band, to break the pattern and deliberately replace the obsessive thought with something else.  While both can be effective in less-intense scenarios, I have never seen them work on something as traumatic as an affair. Ever.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

What I have seen work is EMDR. When we experience trauma or emotional distress, our brain can get stuck in a loop. EMDR is a process that can help you experience disturbing memories in a less distressing way, and therefore heal from severe emotional pain, just as your body heals from physical wounds. It’s a complex process that must be conducted by a trained therapist, but as the name suggests, specific eye movements and/or another form of stimulation such as clicks, taps or tones, are used to help a client reprocess the disturbing thought or memory. I’ve seen amazing results with EMDR in successfully treating some of the most horrific trauma you can imagine. If I have an affair recovery client who is really struggling emotionally, regularly re-living the trauma caused by the affair, EMDR is one of the few treatments I’ve found to be effective.

I’ll share one quick story about my personal experience with EMDR. Some time ago I had a trip planned to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail with a few girlfriends. I have a touch of OCD and intrusive thoughts can sometimes get looped in my head. Before the trip, I saw a movie about a bear eating a hiker. It was graphic and the thought of potentially encountering a bear during our trip, became a real fear for me. It sounds silly now, but at the time, the fear and obsessive worry was real enough that I almost cancelled my trip. It just so happens that prior to my trip, I took an advanced course on EMDR. The facilitator asked for a volunteer and my group volunteered me to work through my fear of a bear attack. I did a single EMDR session about that bear and it worked!  I was able to go on my trip absent of worry and was the only one in my group not in full-blown panic mode when we did in fact encounter a bear on the trails. Now, I don’t mean to trivialize severe trauma therapy by sharing my bear story, but I do want you to know this natural skeptic has tested EMDR out for herself.

Other Effective Tools

For the most severe flashbacks and obsessive thoughts, it is my opinion that EMDR is the most effective therapy available. But, there are other tools I’ve found to be helpful as well.

  • Scheduling Worry Time – This is a time management technique whereby you defer the intrusive thoughts until an agreed upon time to worry about them. Schedule an appointment with yourself each day (30 minutes is plenty) to set aside as your “Worry Time”- time for you to just sit and worry. This gives you a consistent outlet with clearly defined parameters to entertain the obsessive thoughts.  When obsessive thoughts and feelings come up at other times, you tell yourself you aren’t going to deal with them until X time today.
  • Journaling – If you find yourself stuck on something and can’t let it go, write it down.  Journal everything about it. Write uncensored. Vent! Your journal is not something you are going to share. You’re simply taking the thoughts out of your head and depositing them in your journal for safe keeping.  One of the things you’ll want to pay special attention to is your triggers. If you are having a flashback, try to tie it to a trigger. Television shows are a great example. They tend to be one of the most activating triggers. You’d be surprised at how often someone on tv cheats and it brings up all kinds of bad feelings.  There can be so much healing in being able to say to your spouse “I can’t watch this television show with you anymore because…”
  • Asking Questions When you find out your spouse has had an affair, you will get inundated with questions at the weirdest times. Things like “Did she/he really have a dentist appointment that afternoon?” Write them down. Then, discuss them with your therapist who can help you decide when and how to ask them such that they can be communicated without blaming and so you can get the answers you need – because If you sit down with your spouse each night with 50 questions and each starts with “How could you…” you aren’t going to get your answers.  

Spousal  Support

One of the things I routinely point out to my clients is that flashbacks can provide an opportunity to share your pain and bring your partner into the healing process, if they are willing and able to do it. This usually takes the help of your therapist, as your spouse knows they are cause of the pain and naturally wants to minimize and suppress, which in turn increases your tendency to obsess about what you don’t know.  But once you see a pattern for these flashbacks and triggers – and can communicate them to your spouse – they can start to anticipate them and be able to offer validation and reassurance. “Honey, I have a work meeting and I’ll be home late tonight. I know this is going to cause you to worry. I’m so sorry. Here’s where I’m going to be.  I can call you every hour if you need me to”.

Open lines of communication are so important to the healing process.  Spouses who try to minimize, avoid, hide or lie, are only throwing gas on the fire and feeding their spouse’s obsessive thoughts.  No spouse ever wants to have to say “I hadn’t heard from her in 8 months, but she called me today” because he knows it will set you spinning.  But as hard as that conversation might be, the disclosure will help rebuild trust between the two of you, something I’ll discuss in more detail in my next post.  

Riding the Wave

No matter how hard you work to manage the flashbacks, sometimes there isn’t a cure. You must ride the wave and process through it. That might mean journaling. It might mean waiting. Or, it might just mean you’re having a crappy day.

There is simply no getting out of this without a lot of pain. But know, over time, flashbacks will occur less often, be less intense, and less in duration.  You may get to the point where you go a full year without one and then out of the blue, something will trigger you again. As a general rule, you can expect it to take as long as 3-5 years for flashbacks to completely end.  

If you are reeling from an affair and are struggling with obsessive thoughts or flashbacks, don’t suffer alone. Schedule a free Discovery Call to learn more about how we can help.

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