Flashbacks – what they are and strategies for how to deal with them

A flashback, or involuntary recurrent memory, is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual has a sudden, usually powerful, re-experiencing of a past experience or elements of a past experience. These experiences can be happy, sad, exciting, or any other emotion one can consider. They are the scourge of those suffering from Complex PTSD or other forms of trauma.

They are most definitely are like a memory and do not let anyone tell you they are !!! A flashback is when memories of a past trauma feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. That means it’s possible to feel like the experience of sexual violence is happening all over again. During a flashback it can be difficult to connect with reality. It may even feel like the perpetrator is physically present.

Flashbacks may seem random at first. They can be triggered by fairly ordinary experiences connected with the senses, like the smell of someone’s odor or a particular tone of voice. It’s a normal response to this kind of trauma. For each individual flashbacks are of course very different in my case a flashback is not merely a temporary memory flash of an original event but a complete, total reliving and re experience. The reliving is a total assault on your present sensibilities, transporting you back through smells as acute as an heirloom rose; taste real as a recently eaten repaste; visuals  vivid as a 3d movie in high definition with the power to completely block out whatever is presently happening around you in reality. You are transported back to the event in totality not just in memory. Anyone in the room currently with you no longer exists. They disappear down a tunnel of reality in which you’re already tentative grip is severed. Loved ones no longer exist. All that exists is the event which may have happened thirty years ago in clarity that is as sharp as if occurring now. Physical pain of rape is experienced. Your vagina screams in agony and the shame of the invasion of your privacy devours you, drawing you further into it’s poison ivy tentacles intertwined in your brain. All you can smell is the heavy, heady breathing of the rapist. Fetid alcohol and nicotine laden breath which is all consuming becoming the only life air keeping you alive. No longer do you smell the sweetness of the living child you have just kissed. They do not exist in this flashback of thirty years ago.

You are only a six year old twentieth century child locked in the twenty first century body of a fifty five year old mother of four who can no longer hold on to her grasp of the time existing now. Loved ones no longer stop the six year old screaming in the physical and emotional pain from erupting up through your oseophageus. The muffled scream held in by the sweaty bovine smelling hand of the snatcher of your childhood innocence. That scream never escaped your throat then and does not now. It’s a scream that is never set free, forever held in and suppressed for eternity only to be relived each time a trigger of the “flashback” happens.

It comes without warning, with triggers that are never consistent and change with fluidity. A muffled sound. Dropped cutlery. A smashed glass on the floor. A banged door. The heavy smell of a recently smoked cigarette on a passerby on the street. A just finished glass of Guinness and its remaining hop odour, distinctly different  from any other alcoholic beverage. Cannot be mistaken for wine or gin. No, it’s Guinness and it has transported you from your current 2017 existence back to 1969. You end up in the shower fully clothed as you attempt to scrub yourself clean of their smell and bodily fluids; curled up in the walk in wardrobe in the dark corner hoping not to be discovered, huddled in the corner of the chemist shop where a child has just had a tantrum or in a trance at the dinner table when a family member has mentioned some item from the day’s news that triggers a memory.  That is a flashback.  It is all consuming and it is real.

With repeated flashbacks which are at first surreal and bewildering, comes at times dissociation. This is where you further are removed from the present and your final feather like grip on the connection to around you is lost.

This derealisation allows no one to reach you. You are lost in the past. Lost to the trauma as if it was happening now. It’s devastating grip is complete. The perpetrators voices are the one you hear. They talk to you now controlling your every action. My mother becomes me; I become her. Her words of necessary death are imminent and required by her. She forces you to talk in her voice, her idioms, expressions, desires, requests, evaluation of you, devaluing of you erasing all that is normally held dear. You are not only disconnected from those around you, but at times disconnected from yourself. Once the physical symptoms have finished their ravenous consumption you are removed in your mind. For me that was the commencement of self harm and suicidality. It is a cyclical pattern that is very hard to break as the triggers are everywhere.  A woman chastising her child overtly in the Supermarket can trigger a flashback. Passing a smoker on the street can do it too. The randomness is cruel. Through EMDR with my Psychotherapist they are becoming more manageable but I still cannot be left alone due to the risk of a trigger and the  high suicidality rate as a result. My family take great care of me. I am very lucky.

What helps during a flashback?

If you realise that you are in the middle of a flashback, consider the following tips:

  • Tell yourself that you are having a flashback. Remind yourself that the actual event is over and that you survived.
  • Breathe. Take slow, deep breaths by placing your hand on your stomach and taking deep breaths. You should see your hand move out with the inhalations, and watch it fall in with the exhalations. When we panic, our body begins to take short, shallow breaths, and the decrease in oxygen can make you feel more panicked. Deep breathing is important because it increases the oxygen in your system and helps you move out of anxious state faster.
  • Return to the present by using the five senses.
  • Look around you. Make a list of the items in the room; count the colours or pieces of furniture around you. What do you see?
  • Breathe in a comforting scent, or focus on the smells around you. What do you smell?
  • Listen to the noises around you, or turn on music. What do you hear?
  • Eat or drink something you enjoy. Focus on the flavour. What do you taste?
  • Hold something cold, like a piece of ice, or hot, like a mug of tea. What does it feel like?
  • Recognise what would make you feel safer. Wrap yourself in a blanket, or go into a room by yourself and close the door. Do whatever it takes for you to feel secure.

How do I prevent flashbacks?

You may be able to take steps to prevent future flashbacks by identifying warning signs and triggers:

  • Be aware of the warning signs.
  • Flashbacks sometimes feel as though they come out of nowhere, but there are often early physical or emotional warning signs. These signs could include a change in mood, feeling pressure in your chest, or suddenly sweating. Becoming aware of the early signs of flashbacks may help you manage or prevent them.
  • Identify what experiences trigger your flashbacks.
  • Flashbacks can be triggered by a sensory feeling, an emotional memory, a reminder of the event, or even an unrelated stressful experience. Identify the experiences that trigger your flashbacks. If possible, make a plan on how to avoid these triggers or how to cope if you encounter the trigger.

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