The Mighty Logo

4 Tips for Effectively Managing PTSD Flashbacks

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I am almost 10 years post-intensive post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma treatment. Today I am 10 years older and a lot wiser in the ways of trauma and PTSD. Five years ago I just wanted to die. I didn’t care how it happened and had spent years thinking about how best to do that as I tumbled further and further into that place of despair and hopelessness that unprocessed trauma can take you.

• What is PTSD?

I knew I couldn’t do “it” anymore. I couldn’t pretend anymore.

I couldn’t answer one more question about how I was because the next answer I would give would be the truth: I had spent the previous three decades hiding and I just didn’t have the ability, strength or even the interest anymore to pull off the charade.

I could no longer fake wanting to be here … on this earth.

I was done.

Fast-forward to 2020 and I am still learning many things about PTSD in general, and about my own diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) specifically. I’ve researched/studied and learned a lot about how to recognize and manage triggers and almost eliminate flashbacks, and how to avoid getting stuck or frozen in another trauma cycle. I now write books and travel the country as a PTSD and trauma specialist, speaking on the topic of PTSD.

One of the truly life-changing tools that I learned from the brilliant founders of the intensive trauma treatment center where I was successfully treated — the late Dr. Louis Tinnin — and my mentor, the mother of art therapy, Dr. Linda Gantt, was how to recognize my triggers (the things that would generally, for me, precede a flashback), and process them almost immediately, thereby redirecting the circuitous route of unprocessed trauma to its proper place — the left side of the brain, to be processed.

The following are a few things that I’ve learned about managing flashbacks and I’d like to pass them along to you.

First, know this: a flashback is not a memory. A memory is just that – a memory of a past experience. A memory has a time attached to it: the past.

A flashback is an intense reexperiencing of the original trauma that is so real the person experiencing it may have a hard time determining that the event is in the past and not in the present.

Oftentimes, the battle is won or lost right here simply because the person living with PTSD can’t easily grasp the concept of time and space in the past and present in reference to their trauma.

Here are some tips on how to more effectively manage flashbacks:

1. Talk to yourself.

Honestly, this is one of the best tools you have. Address the part of you that has been riled up or upset and is stuck in the past memory, and remind that part that you are in charge, that you are safe and that you are no longer in danger. Saying the words out loud are important, but hearing them spoken out loud is even more powerful. Be the boss! Don’t let the different parts of yourself that are riled up (fear, control, etc.) lead you around by your emotions! When you learn to remind yourself (your parts) that you are safe in the moment and that you can take care of yourself it is a profound moment in recovery from PTSD and trauma.

2. Know your triggers.

Do you know what upsets you, freaks you out and/or makes you feel terrified and helpless? It’s hugely helpful to know what those things are in order to know how to combat them. Once you’ve figured out what your triggers are, then you can be proactive and learn to limit your exposure to them and/or devise safety plans for when you are forced to deal with them.

3. Ground yourself.

There are many ways to pull yourself out of an emotionally unsafe place with various grounding techniques. You can keep yourself in the present by doing some things that focus attention on the here and now: saying the time and date out loud, listen to loud music, hold a cold can of soda or a cold bottle of water, list the last 3 U.S. Presidents, etc. Anything that will keep you connected to the present — usually it’s a physical thing that you can feel — will do the job to keep you in the here and now.

4. Pay attention.

When you are triggered, how do you feel? What steps do you take to process a trigger and then safely manage a flashback?

What helps you with a PTSD flashback? Let us know in the comments.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Originally published: November 28, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home