10 Ways to Deal With PTSD Flashbacks

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is full of perils. I awake in the morning with no idea what the day will bring. One day can pass uneventfully and I am able to go about my usual work and life, and live life to the fullest like many others. 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 that plunge me into re-experiences of past traumas that were devilish to go through once, but to experience again is almost worse. Make no mistake, a flashback is not a memory. It isn’t anything close to resembling a memory in the way I think we commonly know it. A flashback, or involuntary recurrent memory, is a psychological phenomenon where 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 most often when the memory is recalled involuntarily, and/or when it is so intense that the person “relives” the experience, unable to fully recognize it as a memory and not something that is happening in “real time.”

The reliving is a total assault on my present sensibilities. It transports me back through smells as acute as an heirloom rose; tastes as real as recently eaten repaste; visuals as vivid as a 3D movie in high definition, with the power to completely block out whatever is presently happening around me. I am transported back to the event in totality — not just in memory. Anyone in the room currently with you no longer exists. Loved ones no longer exist. All that exists is the event that happened 30 years ago, as clearly as if it were occurring now.

I am a 6-year-old, 20th century child locked in the 21st century body of a 54-year-old mother of four who can no longer grasp onto existing now. Loved ones no longer stop the 6-year-olds screams erupting through my esophagus from the physical and emotional pain. That scream never escaped my throat then, and it still doesn’t 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” takes place.

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 from a passerby on the street. A recently finished glass of Guinness and its remaining hop odor, distinctly different from any other alcoholic beverage. It cannot be mistaken for wine or gin. No, it’s Guinness, and it has transported me from my current 2017 existence back to 1969. It is not just a mere memory.

I hope you can see how dangerous flashbacks are and that they can be capable of plunging someone struggling into the depths of depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts.

So how do I deal with flashbacks? Through years of psychotherapy, I have developed the following strategies to help:

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 the terror, rage, hurt and/or panic out. Now is the time to honor your experience.

3. Get grounded. This means stomping your feet on the ground to remind yourself that you have feet and can get away if you need to. Being aware of all five senses can also help you ground yourself.

4. Breathe. When we get scared, we often stop breathing regularly. As a result, our body might begin to panic from the lack of oxygen. Lack of oxygen in itself can cause a lot of panic feelings: pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint, shakiness and dizziness. When we breathe deeply enough, that panic feeling can decrease. One method of breathing deeply involves putting your hand on your diaphragm, pushing against your hand and then exhaling so your 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, 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 might lose the sense of where we end and the world begins; as if we don’t have skin. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or stuffed animal, go to bed, sit in a closet — do things that make you feel 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 support system knows about the flashbacks so they can help you through the process; whether that means letting you be by yourself or being there with you.

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 have some quiet time. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself up for having a flashback.

9. Honor 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 from past trauma. It takes time to learn appropriate ways to take care of yourself, learn ways to be an adult who has feelings, and develop effective ways of coping in the here and now.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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