Some Tips for Coping with Flashbacks

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.

How to Cope with Flashbacks

Healing is not an overnight process. It takes time. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re finally feeling better, and then the wound will reopen and bleed. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Keep on taking it one step at a time.”

Flashbacks are a feature of PTSD that are hard to manage, as well as being distressing. Below are some suggestions for helping you to cope:

1. First, tell yourself that you are having a flashback. Give it a name. This can help create a sense of control when we feel we’re at the mercy of overwhelming feelings.

2. Remind yourself that the worst is over. You already know the truth, and you’ve faced up to the truth. So, the feelings and sensations you’re experiencing right now are merely memories related to the past (discovering the terrible truth for the first time). That event is over. It’s not happening right now, and you managed to survive the experience.

3. Ground yourself in the present moment. Feel your feet on the ground, and remind yourself you are able to escape if you need to get away.  

4. Focus on your breathing. When we start to feel scared, we stop breathing normally, and our body starts to register a lack of oxygen. It is this which causes the increasing sense of panic (which manifests in symptoms like a pounding head, tightness in the chest, profuse sweating, or feeling faint.)

Note: To breathe deeply, put your hand on your diaphragm, push against your hand, and then exhale so that the diaphragm goes back in again.

5. Reorient yourself to the present moment by consciously using each of your five senses.

Look around and focus on some different objects in the room. Make a mental note of different colours you can see.

Listen out for different sounds in your environment. Notice your breathing, any traffic, white noise, birds or people.

Try to feel your body, and notice what it’s touching. For example, try touching your clothes, arms, hair or body. Feel the chair or floor supporting you.

Sniff to see if you can smell anything … Flowers, coffee, cigarettes, an air freshener, and so on.

Swallow a few times. Try eating a mint, or a piece of gum. Notice how it tastes, and how that slowly starts to change.

6. Establish boundaries between yourself and the world. Sometimes when we’re experiencing a flashback, we can’t tell where we end and the world begins. If that happens, put a blanket or a cover around you; hold a pillow to your chest; go to bed; lock the door – or do what you need to feel you’re safe from threat or danger.

7. Seek support from someone who will understand your feelings. (Perhaps your family, a close friend, or a counsellor.)

8. Allow yourself the time you need to recover. Flashbacks can be powerful, and extremely distressing. Give yourself whatever time you need to transition from what is happening in your body … back to the present time.

Also, don’t expect to be able to function normally. You can’t just switch off these emotions then return to your day. If it helps, take a nap, have a bath, go for a walk, or listen to some music that you know will soothe your feelings.

And remember to be gentle and kind with yourself. Don’t attack yourself for having a flashback.

9. Respect and honour your experience. Appreciate the fact that you’ve managed to survive.

10. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to heal – and it takes time to learn how to cope with powerful flashbacks. It’s a long slow process, and it can’t be speeded up.

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’.

Tips for Dealing with Flashbacks

In our last post we talked about PTSD, and how often this occurs when a partner’s been betrayed. Part of this might involve experiencing flashbacks (and usually to the time when they first heard the news, or discovered that their partner had a secret life.)

This will need to be explored with professional counsellors as it’s crucial to stay safe and to get support and help.

And some well-known strategies that the counsellor might use to help to cope with flashbacks and disturbing memories include:

1. Tell yourself that you are having a flashback right now (when you begin to experience the intense, distressing symptoms). That, is give a name to what is happening. This, in itself, can help to create a sense of control rather than being out of control and completely at the mercy of extreme and powerful feelings.

2. Remind yourself again that the worst is over. You know the truth. Thus, the feelings and sensations you’re experiencing right now are merely memories that relate to past events (discovering the truth for the first time). That is, the event has occurred; it is not happening now; and you have managed to survive the experience.

3. Get grounded. First, stamp your feet on the ground to remind yourself that you’re able to escape, and to get away from (perceived) danger if you want and choose to do that.

4. Breathe. When we start to feel scared, we stop breathing normally. As a result, our body begins to panic (as it registers a growing lack of oxygen.) It is this which causes the increasing sense of panic – which may start to manifest in the following ways: as a pounding in the head, as tightness in the chest, through sweating, feeling faint, or feeling dizzy and unsteady. However, when we start to breathe deeply, the feelings of panic will begin to subside and dissipate. 

Note: To breathe deeply, put your hand on your diaphragm, push against your hand, and then exhale so that the diaphragm goes back in again.

5. Reorient yourself to the present moment. Deliberately use your five senses, if you can. For example, look around and focus on some different objects in the room. Make a mental note of some colours you can see. Also, listen to the sounds in your environment: notice your breathing, any traffic, birds or people. 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 chair or floor supporting you. After doing this, sniff to see if there are flowers or food that you can smell – or perhaps the smell of coffee, or cigarettes.

6. Establish boundaries between yourself and the world. Sometimes when we’re experiencing a flashback or a memory we can’t tell where we end and the world begins. If that happens, put a blanket or a cover around you; hold a pillow to your chest; go to bed; lock the door – or do what you need to feel you’re safe from any danger.

7. Actively seek support. It is important that your family, close friends, a counsellor or therapist know what you need from them in order to feel supported, safe and comforted.

8. Allow yourself the necessary time to recover. Sometimes flashbacks can be powerful and can feel overwhelming. Give yourself the time to transition from these – to being back in the present where the trauma news is ‘history’. Don’t expect to be able to function normally as you can’t just switch off these powerful reactions. 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 its ramifications. Respect your mind and body’s need to process what you went through; and be willing to experience all the negative emotions.

10. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to heal; and it takes time to learn how to take care of yourself. Also, it takes time to find ways to cope with flashbacks and night terrors. It will be a long slow process – and it can’t be speeded up.