If you ask someone who’d been through trauma or has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they might tell you that the thing they find hardest to cope with are the flashbacks which they might experience from time to time, often as a result of being triggered. Many people have a hard time coping with flashbacks and dissociation, which may occur because of encountering triggers which remind them of the traumatic event. These flashbacks are often unpredictable, disruptive and make them feel very vulnerable, almost as if the event us occurring all over again.
A flashback is a recurring post-traumatic symptom where disturbing memory content is re-experienced involuntarily, vividly and at times aggressively. These can be visual, auditory, emotional, somatic or a collection of sensory experiences. A flashback might last seconds, minutes or even hours. Many flashbacks are stronger than just intrusive thoughts/ images alone and can cause the individual to lose touch with the present moment or even believe that the trauma is happening to them in the ‘now’. In this piece we will look at what flashbacks can feel like for those who have experience trauma in the past and also at some ways in which individuals can try to cope with their flashbacks.
Before we try and explore what the experience of a flashback might feel like to an individual, it is important to distinguish between a flashback and a hallucination. In case of a flashback, there is the recognition that what one is experiencing is related to a past trauma, but when this trauma is especially overwhelming or denied, the recognition itself might be blocked. A hallucination is often a flashback type of experience where the connection to the past is overlooked or denied or not clearly established.
Flashbacks are considered to be one of the recurring symptoms of PTSD where an individual feels or acts in a manner as if the traumatic incident is happening all over again. These episodes might be temporary where the individual might maintain some connection with the present moment or might lose all awareness of their surroundings and be taken completely back into that moment when the incident occurred. Put simply, a flashback is when the memories of a past trauma feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. During a flashback it can be difficult to connect with reality and it might also feel as if the perpetrator is physically present.
Emotional flashbacks are a complex mixture of intense and confusing reliving of a past trauma - almost like living a nightmare while being awake while experiencing overwhelming sorrow, helplessness, shame, and a sense of inadequacy. While these flashbacks might seem random at first, they can be triggered by seemingly ordinary experiences connected with our senses, like a particular voice or a smell. They can also be triggered by a situation, circumstance or an event which reminds you of the past. Emotional flashbacks are often called ‘amygdala hijackings’ and the individual going through this can feel very lonely, ashamed and even humiliated for having these feelings which can make them feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with them. While going though this, individuals might also feel as powerless and distressed as they did when the original events took place. Flashbacks may take the form of pictures, sounds, smells, body sensations, feelings, or a lack of them (numbness). At times, these flashbacks may have no relevance to what is happening in the present, but the individual will be flooded with a sense of panic, feeling trapped or suffocated. What makes these flashbacks distressing is that very often these memories might be so intense that as the person relives them as if they are happening in the moment, they might not be able to recognise it as memory and not something happening in 'real time'.
When it comes to coping with flashbacks, it can help to realise that there are ways in which we can cope. While flashbacks can be very distressing, there are things you can do that might help. Some of the things you could do include:
Get to know your Triggers.
You might find that there are certain experiences, situations or people seem to trigger your flashbacks. These triggers might also include specific reminders of past trauma such as specific sounds, smells, places, words, places, particular types of books or films or certain key dates such as the anniversary of a traumatic experience. It becomes important to identify these triggers wherever possible so that you can either try to limit your exposure to them where possible, or in event of that not being possible (which is usually the case), you can prepare for them by devising way to cope with your reaction to them and have some self-care tips to use to help you as well. Knowing your triggers can also help you with other symptoms associated with PTSD such as intrusive thoughts, disassociation and memories of the event.
Identify Early Warning Signs.
Flashbacks and dissociation may feel as though they come out of the blue, but there are often early warning signs that you might be slipping into a flashback or a dissociative state. For instance, your surroundings might seem fuzzy, you might feel sensitive to light or sound or even as if you’re losing touch with yourself and all that’s around you. If you build the awareness of these early cues, it might make it easier to cope with flashbacks. Next time you experience it occurs, it can be beneficial to try and revisit what you were feeling and thinking just before it happened. You may chose to note them down in a diary so you can keep a track of these and pick up early signs in future as well as they are beginning to happen. The more signs and symptoms you notice, the better chances of being able to prevent future episodes.
Use grounding techniques.
Grounding techniques help keep you connected to the present and help you cope with flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. These techniques typically focus on your senses and try to bring you back to the realities of the present moment. For instance, you might try to list the things you can see around you, smell a calming fragrance like peppermint, turn on some music which will divert your mind, bite into a lemon as its sourness produces a strong sensation which is hard to ignore, or grip a piece of ice which will make your mind focus on the cold sensation it produces. It might also help to focus on your breathing as when you are in a state of panic or feeling frightened, you might stop breathing normally which in turn can further increase those feelings. Concentrating on breathing slowly and counting to 5 can help to regulate your breathing and your emotional state as well.
Progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation techniques, as the name suggest help you relax your body and feel more collected. During periods of high stress or panic, our body muscles tend to tighten up and this technique is very helpful in helping you feel less anxious or stressed. Find a quiet, comfortable place to initially focus on your breathing and then systematically move around your body and focus on releasing different muscle groups while synchronizing it with your breath.
Validate your feelings and experiences.
What you have experienced is real and hurtful, and by validating your feelings and experiences you let yourself know that whatever happened to you is not your fault and that there is nothing “wrong” with you for experiencing the trauma flashbacks. What you’re going through is actually a normal response to abnormal experiences. It’s important to remind yourself of this as you go through challenging symptoms because self-validation is an important piece in the journey or healing and recovery.
Focus on your Self-Talk.
Our inner monologue can be extremely powerful and during a flashback, it can help keep you calm and steady and bring you back to the present moment. You might also choose to couple this with other grounding techniques or deep breathing exercises. In a panic situation, it can be hard to try and turn to a grounding technique sometimes at the first instance, and in such cases self-talk becomes a crucial skill that allows everything else to fall in line. You may choose to tell yourself things like "This is a flashback. It is just a flashback; it is not real. This is not happening right now."; "I am safe now.”; “There is no external threat to my safety right now." Or even “I am in control, I can ask for help, this will end.”. You can find a phrase or go-to mantra which works for your to talk yourself through the process as it keeps you planted in reality and reminds you of the power you have.
Separate the past from the present.
This is a technique which includes a combination of grounding activities, self-talk and reality testing. During a flashback, it's very easy to be disoriented from the current time or place and you might feel like you are losing control. One of the things you can do is taking the time to label all the things that are different now from the past you are reliving (time, year, your age, surroundings can be a few places to start). This can help your mind tease apart the complete lack of safety you feel from the security of your present environment. At this time, you may also choose to acknowledge the positive supports you have in your life right now. As part of this, you may also choose to carry an object that reminds you of the present. Some people find it helpful to touch or look at a particular object during a flashback, and this might be something you decide to carry in your pocket or bag, or something that you have with you, such as a keyring, a soft toy, a photograph or a piece of jewelry.
Look after your Physical Health.
Coping with flashbacks can be really exhausting and you might feel too drained to find the energy to look after yourself, but know that looking after your physical health can make a big difference to how you feel emotionally. You can look for ways to comfort yourself as well, be it by curling up in a blanket, cuddling a pet or a stuff toy, listening to some music or watch a movie you like. Think about your nutrition and ensure you are eating regularly and staying hydrated. Try to get outside and get some exercise if you can as fresh air and movement are really helpful in boosting our mental wellbeing. It is also important at this time to ensure you are getting adequate sleep and rest. Through this time, be mindful of how you are coping and avoid falling into the trap of using alcohol or drugs to cope with your difficult feelings, memories or physical pain but know that these substances will only make you feel worse in the long run.
Talk to someone you trust or a Mental Health professional.
It can be hard sometimes to open up to others about flashbacks and PTSD as you might feel unable to express what has happened, or you might be unwilling to talk about it due to the inability to trust others especially after a traumatic experience. You don't need to be able to describe the trauma to tell someone how you are currently feeling though. It could help to talk to a friend or family member or a helpline in the short term and if you feel you need more support going forward, you can always choose to approach your GP or a Mental Health professional for further support on learning how to cope with flashbacks.
Flashbacks can undoubtedly be harrowing and distressing experiences as they take you back to a time when you felt most powerless and vulnerable, and often they are beyond our control, but knowing that there are ways to cope with it both in the short term while they are happening and in the long term can help us to feel more empowered. As they say, even if we can’t stop the waves, we can learn to surf, and this holds true here too!
Written by: Vedica Podar
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