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Flashbacks and Trauma

By Teresa Nelson, Peer Support Specialist

Flashbacks are the personal experiences that pop into your awareness, without any conscious, premeditated attempt to search and retrieve this memory.  These experiences occasionally have little to no relation to the situation at hand. Flashbacks can be so disruptive as to seriously affect day-to-day living. These experiences can be happy, sad, exciting, or any other emotion. The term is used particularly when the memory is recalled involuntarily, and/or when it is so intense that the person “relives” the experience, unable to fully recognize it as memory and not something that is happening in “real time”. This is why you’ll often hear persons with flashbacks state that the past is never really in the past for them. Time is fluid for these individuals.

What to do about Flashbacks:

●  Tell yourself you are having a flashback and that this is okay and very normal in people who have experienced trauma.

●  Remind yourself that the worst is over – it happened in the past, but it is not happening now. The ‘child’ or traumatized person in you is giving you these memories to use in your healing and, however terrible you feel, you survived the awfulness then; which means you can survive and get through what you are remembering now.                          

●  Call on the ‘adult’ in you to soothe the ‘child’ or victim part, telling yourself that you are not alone or in danger.  Tell yourself it’s okay to remember and to feel this way and that the ‘child’ or victim part of you is communicating in the only way she/he can.

●  Try one of these ways of ‘grounding’ yourself and pull yourself back to the present:

1.   Stand up, stamp your feet, jump up and down, dance around and remind yourself where you are

2.   Describe your surroundings to yourself:  Notice the color of the walls and floor and what kind of furniture is in the room

3.   Listen to the noises around you and describe them

4.   Notice the sensations in your body, the boundary of your skin, your clothes and the chair or floor supporting you

●  If you have lost a sense of where you end, and the rest of the world begins, rub your arms and legs so you can feel the edges of your body. Wrap yourself up in a blanket and notice how it feels around you.

●  Listen to your own breathing. Make sure you are sitting down before you do some deep breathing so as not to get too dizzy. Breathe deeply through your mouth and hold it as long as you can, then make a small opening in your mouth and let the air out as slowly as you can. You should only do this a few times and t hen rest. Make sure you are not dizzy before standing up.

●  Consider getting support from the people close to you.  Let them know about your flashbacks and tell them specific things they can do to help you manage them.  This might mean talking to you, and helping your to reconnect with the present to remember you are safe and cared for now.

●  Flashbacks can be powerful experiences and may drain your energy. Take time to take care of yourself after having a flashback. A warm bath or a nap, a warm drink and some soothing music can ease your troubled ne rvous system.

●  When you feel ready, write down all you can remember about the flashback and how you got through it. This activity reminds yourself that you had the strength to move through your flashback, but it also gives you information you may want to share with your doctor, therapist or case manager.

*  Above all, remember that you are not crazy.  Flashbacks are a normal result of trauma, and you are healing, so be gentle with yourself.