and how to cope…

Flashbacks are sudden, temporary and unexpected memories of past trauma that a person has experienced.  It tends not to be like an ordinary memory and they can happen in the form of pictures, sounds, body sensations, feelings or smells.

Flashbacks can make it feel like the trauma is happening again and although they can be really confusing and frightening it’s your mind’s way of saying you don’t have to block out the memory anymore and you can heal.

Why Do Flashbacks Happen?

Our minds do all sorts of creative things to protect us from extreme pain and suffering. A lot of these protective mechanisms happen automatically without our conscious control.  It’s only when our mind believes we are safe from further harm that it brings these past memories and feelings to our attention for healing. These memories and feelings can come in the form of a flashback.

Flashbacks can be caused by triggers and triggers are things that remind people of the trauma. Triggers can be certain sights, sounds, touch or smells.  Sometimes we can easily identify the trigger but other times not.

Coping with Flashbacks

There are many things that you can try in order to manage flashbacks.  Getting through them may need practice, creativity and perseverance but it can get better. Flashbacks can be powerful experiences and it’s important to take care of yourself once they are over.

You will find your own ways to cope with your flashbacks.  It can be helpful to have a support plan on hand that you can refer to once you recognise you are experiencing a flashback.

Flashbacks are a natural part of the healing process and the more you know about yours and can talk through and understand their place in your memories the less intense they can become. Finding your triggers and working with a therapist or counsellor can really help.

Here are some suggestions to try:

  • Recognise this is in fact a flashback and it is a past
  • Look around you, if you are safe remind yourself you are in fact safe, the trauma is not happening now. Take yourself to a safer place if you need to.
  • Try and focus on something pleasant – a smell or feeling, something that relaxes you and reminds you of happiness.
  • Try to ‘ground’ yourself – stamp your feet, wriggle your toes, touch the walls, stretch, smell the air, look at everything around you, ask yourself the day, date, time?   It may feel silly, but it helps to bring you back to the present.
  • Do something to make yourself feel warm, safe and comfortable – wrap yourself up in a blanket, curl up into a ball, whatever helps you.
  • Distraction – eg. Challenge yourself to remember song lyrics, go out for a walk, spend time with a pet, talk with a trusted friend or family/ whanau member, call a survivor helpline.
  • Count and control your breathing.  Breathe slowly and deeply.  Count to 5 as you breathe in through your nose, then count to 5 again as you breathe out through your mouth.  Carry this on for as long as you need to control the panic that often comes with flashbacks.

Remember, flashbacks are a normal process after trauma. It may feel like it, but you are not losing your mind!