What are Flashbacks and Strategies For How to Cope With Them

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Day to day existence and living with Complex PTSD is full of perils. I awake in the morning having no idea what the day will bring. One day can pass uneventfully where I am able to go about my work and life just normally and living life to the full like anyone else. Oh, those days are joyous and to be treasured but they are few and far between. They are peppered loudly and intrusively by days triggered by flashbacks which plunge me into re-experiences of past trauma that was devilish to go through once but almost worse to go through twice. Make no mistake, a flashback is not a memory. It is anything even closely resembling a memory in the way we commonly know it. 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. The term is used particularly when the memory is recalled involuntarily, and/or when it is so intense that the person “relives” the experience, unable to fully recognise it as memory and not something that is happening in “real time”. The reliving is a total assault on my present sensibilities, transports me 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 me in reality. I am 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 already a 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. The physical pain of rape is experienced. My vagina screams in agony and the shame of the invasion of my privacy devours me, drawing me further into its 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 me alive. No longer do I smell the sweetness of the living child I have just kissed. They do not exist in this flashback of thirty years ago.

I am only a six-year-old twentieth-century child locked in the twenty-first century body of a fifty-four year old mother of four who can no longer hold on to its 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 my oesophagus. The muffled scream held in by the sweaty bovine smelling hand of the snatcher of my childhood innocence. That scream never escaped my 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 me from my current 2017 existence back to 1969. So you see it is not just a mere memory so you can see how dangerous flashbacks are and how they can plunge sufferers into depths of depression, high anxiety, and even suicidality.

So how do I deal with them? Through years of Psychotherapy, we have developed the following strategies which help enormously.

What Can I Do To Help During a Flashback?

1. Tell yourself that you are having a flashback

2. Remind yourself that the worst is over. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories of the past. The actual event has already occurred and you survived. Now it is the time to let out the terror, rage, hurt, and/or panic. Now is the time to honor your experience.

3. Get grounded. This means stamping your feet on the ground to remind yourself that you have feet and can get away now if you need to. (There may have been times before when you could not get away, now you can.) Being aware of all five senses can also help you ground yourself.

4. Breathe. When we get scared we stop normal breathing. As a result, our body begins to panic from the lack of oxygen. Lack of oxygen in itself causes a lot of panic feelings; pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint, shakiness, and dizziness. When we breathe deeply enough, a lot of the panic feeling can decrease. Breathing deeply means putting your hand on your diaphragm, pushing against your hand, and then exhaling so the diaphragm goes in.

5. Reorient to the present. Begin to use your five senses in the present. Look around and see the colors in the room, the shapes of things, the people near, etc. Listen to the sounds in the room: your breathing, traffic, birds, people, cars, etc. Feel your body and what is touching it: your clothes, your own arms, and hands, the chair, or the floor supporting you.

6. Get in touch with your need for boundaries. Sometimes when we are having a flashback we lose the sense of where we leave off and the world begins; as if we do not have skin. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or stuffed animal, go to bed, sit in a closet, anyway that you can feel yourself truly protected from the outside.

7. Get support. Depending on your situation you may need to be alone or may want someone near you. In either case, it is important that your close ones know about flashbacks so they can help with the process, whether that means letting you be by yourself or being there.

8. Take the time to recover. Sometimes flashbacks are very powerful. Give yourself time to make the transition from this powerful experience. Do not expect yourself to jump into adult activities right away. Take a nap, a warm bath, or some quiet time. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself up for having a flashback.

9. Honour your experience. Appreciate yourself for having survived that horrible time. Respect your body’s need to experience a full range of feelings.

10. Be patient. It takes time to heal the past. It takes time to learn appropriate ways of taking care of yourself, of being an adult who has feelings and developing effective ways of coping in the here and now.

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