Managing Flashbacks

Jennifer MitchellJennifer Mitchell, Trauma

A flash back occurs when the memory of a past trauma emerges and makes you feel as though the trauma is currently taking place. When faced with a trigger, such as a smell, person, tone of voice, odor or posture of a person, color, sound, emotion etc., the body responds to the “threat”- despite it not being real – even if it years later. You will react as if “ I AM in danger, distress etc.” not as “ I WAS in danger THEN.”

When experiencing a flashback it can be tough to get grounded or connect back to the present. These are some techniques that can help during a flashback.

  • Tell yourself you are experiencing a flashback and that it is okay. You are not crazy! Flashbacks are normal reaction to trauma.
  • Remind yourself the trauma is over and that it happened in the past, not occurring now.
  • There is a part of you that is strong or, as we therapists, often call, the ‘adult’ part of your self. Call on that part of yourself and tell your ‘child’ or injured part, that they are not alone. Tell them that they are not in any danger and that you will help them to get through this. Let your child or injured self-know that it’s okay to remember, to feel what she/he feels and that it will aide with healing. However hard it is for you, they are communicating in the only way they know how. Other techniques for communicating with the child and/or injured parts of yourself can be learned and guided through, during therapy.
  • Get connected with the PRESENT. Consciously focus on items in the present to ground yourself. Grounding exercise include:
    • Stand up, feel your feet on the ground, stamp or grind your feet, jump, dance, clap or rock, as you remind yourself  you are in the present
    • Look around the room you are in. Notice the colors, the people, the shapes of objects in the room.
    • Listen to and notice the sounds around you
    • Notice and feel the sensations in your body, your skin; notice how your clothes feel, notice the chair, wall or floor supporting you.
    • Smell and notice any aromas – you may also choose to direct yourself to comforting smells that you enjoy (aromatherapy, laundry, opening the window etc.). Strong smells can be used to bring you to present, such as peppermint or eucalyptus.
    • Lightly pinch yourself, wash your face, place a cold wash cloth on your head, snap an elastic band on your wrist or get ice from the freezer and hold it in your hand – These sensation are reminders that you are in the present and the memory is in the past
    • Rub your arms or legs and pay close attention to your body’s boundaries. Wrap yourself in a blanket or large sweater, taking note of the warmth of the blanket/sweater around you.
  • Remember to breathe. When we are afraid, we often breathe quickly and shallowly which adds to the body’s feeling of panic. When we do not get enough oxygen, we may feel increasingly shaky, dizzier and lightheaded. Imagine you have a balloon in your stomach, breathe deeply, put your hand just above your navel and breathe so that your hand gets pushed up and down, imagine you are inflating the balloon as you breathe in, and deflating as you breathe out. (***note that for some, focusing on breathing creates more anxiety. Do what feels right for you)
  • Get support. Talk to a friend, join a support group in person or online. Talk to a therapist who is trained in trauma. A therapist can guide you through exercises, help with processing and give additional strategies for healing.
  • Find your “safe place” in your body or mind. Find a memory or image that is safe, where you feel warm and protected. This can serve as an anchor or place to escape to when flashbacks occur.
  • Flashbacks are powerful and draining experiences. Be kind to yourself:
    • Have a bath, a nap or drink a warm drink
    • Play some music
    • Do a guided meditation
  • You may find it helpful to write down what you remember about the flashback and how you managed the flashback. This allows you to remember the tools you used and serve as reminder that you survived the flashback.

If you are experiencing flashbacks and want to learn more tools to manage them, please send us me an email and we can book an appointment.

Jennifer Mitchell, Registered Psychologist