“It takes a great effort to free yourself from memory.”
Flashbacks are a bit like waking nightmares. They are powerful, terrifying, repeated episodes where the person re-lives a traumatic incident. They occur suddenly, and feel uncontrollable. And the responses they evoke are so vivid and real that it feels like the experience is happening again – even though it is over, and fixed in the past.
Below are some suggestions that can help you cope with flashbacks:
1. Tell yourself you are having a flashback … when you start to experience the distressing symptoms. That is, give a name to what is happening in your body and your mind. This, in itself, can give a sense of control when you feel you’re at the mercy of extreme and powerful feelings.
2. Remind yourself again that the worst is over. You now know the truth. Everything is in the light. Thus, the feelings and sensations are merely memories. They relate to past events, not what’s happening today.
3.Ground yourself in the here and now. Stamp your feet on the ground to remind yourself again that you’re able to escape, and to get away from danger (if escaping is something you believe you need to do).
4. Breathe. When we start to feel scared, we stop breathing normally, and our brain starts to register a lack of oxygen. It is this which then causes the increasing sense of panic – which manifest itself in the following ways: as a pounding in the head, as a tightness in the chest, as sweating, feeling faint, or feeling dizzy and unsteady.
However, as we work on breathing deeply, the panic will subside and we’ll start to feel more normal, and less anxious again.
5. Reorient yourself to the present moment. Deliberately connect with your senses, if you can.
For example, look around and focus on some objects in the room. Make a mental note of different colours you can see.
Also, listen to the sounds in your environment. For example: your breathing, any traffic, or a fridge that you hear buzzing.
In addition, try to feel your body, and notice what it’s touching. For example, try touching your clothes, your own arms, hair or body, or feel the sofa, or the cushions, or the carpet on the floor.
Then, sniff to see if there are scents in the room – perhaps the smell of coffee, or a candle, or some flowers.
6. Establish boundaries between yourself and the world. When we’re experiencing a flashback, we can’t always tell where we, ourselves, end … and the world begins. If this happens to you, then wrap a blanket round your body; hold a pillow to your chest; go to bed; lock the door – or do whatever you need to feel you’re safe from any danger.
7. Actively seek support. It’s important that your family, your close friends, a counsellor or a therapist know what you might need from them in order to feel safe, and to feel that you’re supported.
8. Allow yourself the time you need to recover. Flashbacks can be powerful and can feel overwhelming. So, give yourself some time to transition from these – to being back in the present where the trauma now is history.
But don’t expect to function in a normal way for now: for you can’t just switch off these kinds of powerful reaction.
If it helps, take a nap, have a leisurely warm bath, or listen to some music that will help to soothe your mind. Also, remember to be gentle and kind with yourself. Don’t denigrate yourself for experiencing a flashback.
9. Respect and honour your experience. Appreciate the fact that you survived the experience – in all its horror, and with all the awful fall-out. Respect your mind and body’s need to process the experience. It has tried hard to protect you in a desperate situation.
10. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to heal, and to take care of yourself. Also, it takes time to learn how to cope with all these flashbacks. It will be a long slow process – and it can’t be speeded up.