Flashbacks are one way our brain tries to process traumatic experiences. But what tends to happen is, our subconscious goes to our storage cabinet to access some important memories regarding the event, and everything can come out of the cabinet all at once. This falling out or flashback experience can feel almost as traumatic as the initial event. The memory can be so vivid it is often described as “re-experiencing” or “re-living” the incident.
Flashbacks usually happen out of the blue. Most result from a “triggering,” or cue, that occurs by an external stimuli. Triggers are typically sensory-based experiences that include smells, sounds, tastes, textures that remind the person of the traumatic event. The smell of cologne, tone of voice or facial expression can remind someone of their abuser. The flash of a light can remind someone of headlights in a car accident.
Living with flashbacks is very challenging, but there are some ways you can deal with these disturbing events:
Remind yourself that you are safe and it’s a memory. Tell yourself the event is in the past, it’s not actually happening now, until you can feel yourself begin to calm.
2. Empower Yourself
Sometimes using your five senses can help you to be in the present moment. If one sense it causing the flashback – your sense of smell for example – use your other senses to place yourself in the actual current environment. One exercise is to focus on where you are now by naming 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you well and 1 thing you taste. This strategy can bring you more into the present moment.
When we become fearful or panicked, our breathing quickens and becomes shallow. This only exacerbates the stress we feel in that moment because our body is literally panicking from a lack of oxygen. In these fearful moments, when we slow our breathing and take deeper and deeper breaths, we actually signal to our brain and body that everything is okay. Think about when we are shocked/surprised we gasp (inhale). When relieved, we sigh (exhale). Extend your out-breath so it is longer than your in-breath, in order to help send that message your brain and body that you are relaxed and there is nothing to be afraid of.
4. Honor the Experience
The initial trauma was awful, so of course you might feel that you want to move on right away. However, it’s important to know that the brain and body need to go through this process and experience a full range of emotions. If you try to stuff or ignore feelings, they will likely arise at other times in often negative ways. Honor the experience and yourself for having gotten through it.
5. Find Support
It’s important that you let loved ones know about your flashbacks so they can help you through them. If you discover what’s most helpful for you in those moments, let them know, so they can remind you and/or provide support in the ways you need. You may also want to seek the guidance of a professional mental health therapist who can offer coping strategies.
If you or a loved one is suffering from flashbacks and would like to explore treatment options, please be in touch, I would be happy to discuss how I may be able to help.