Coping with Flashbacks

Trauma destroys the fabric of time. In normal time you move from one moment to the next, sunrise to sunset, birth to death.

After trauma, you may move in circles, find yourself being sucked backwards into an eddy, or bouncing like a rubber ball from now, to then, to back again. …

In the traumatic universe the basic laws of matter are suspended: ceiling fans can be helicopters, car exhausts can be mustard gas.”
― David J. Morris

Flashbacks are our memories of traumatic life events. They can occur in a number of different forms – as sounds, smells, pictures, bodily sensations, numbness, or a lack of normal physical sensations. Often, they’re accompanied by anxiety or panic, where the person feels they’re trapped, and unable to escape.

Flashbacks can occur in dreams, as nightmares and night terrors. They can interrupt our sleep, where we startle suddenly. And often we’ll feel panicky, and wake up in a sweat.

And because all the sensations are so frightening and intense – but also unrelated to what’s happening right now – the person thinks ‘they’ve lost it’ and they fear they’re going crazy.   

Coping with these symptoms can be very difficult. But there are different strategies that you can use to help you. They include:

1. When you start to experience the intense and scary symptoms, tell yourself ‘this is familiar’, and ‘you’re having a flashback’.

Tell yourself that ‘this will ease, and it is only temporary. The feelings will subside, and you will feel normal again’.

2. Tell yourself the intense feelings are just re-experienced memories. The trauma’s in the past. You have survived the worst already.

3. Allow yourself to experience all the negative emotions. The anxiety, the terror, the panic, and the rage. Don’t try to fight them off, or to repress and silence them. Doing that will only hamper, and slow down, the healing process.

And it’s right for you to honour all the anguish and the pain. The suffering was intense, and it deserves to be acknowledged.

4. Reorient yourself, so you are grounded in the present.

Breathe in slowly and deeply … then exhale slowly and deeply.

Allow the intense feelings to swell, then dissipate.

Allow a sense of peace and calm to gradually replace the terror, faintness, panic, shakiness and dizziness.

5. Keep your focus on this room, and what you notice all around you. Use each of your five sense. What can you see, hear, feel, touch, smell?

For example, what does it feel like to be sitting in this chair? What can you smell? What different sounds can you hear? Birds chirping? Children playing? Cars passing by? A police siren sounding? A fridge or freezer buzzing?

6. Speak to your inner child – who’s feeling terrified. Reassure them that they’re safe and are going to be OK.

Remind them that they’re strong, that they’re fierce and capable.

Remind them ‘they survived it, and are moving on with life’.

7 thoughts on “Coping with Flashbacks

  1. ‘You survived the worst already’ is a powerful one to keep yourself out of the overwhelming feeling of the past-present.
    Reassuring the inner scared child is what I am working on now. I need to exercise to catch her before the panic sets in, it’s difficult to reassure her when she’s fully upset.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I 100% agree that it is hard to pull off in the moment. Because flashbacks are ongoing we get plenty of opportunities to practise, and bit by bit it gets easier 😊 Thanks for the comment blackacre


  2. One of the things I found that helped me for a while was a wide, satin ribbon; I’d wrap it around my index finger and rub it with my thumb. Some of the best advice I read about dealing with the flashbacks, and the panic and anxiety that come with them: look around to find 5 things I can see, 4 things I can touch, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell, and 1 thing I can taste.

    Later, I gave my husband the same advice when locked up after his deportation process started. It’s usually just enough to stop the spiral.

    Liked by 1 person

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