Have you ever been going through a normal day when suddenly something triggers a trauma memory and you almost feel like you are re-living what happened in the past? Your heart starts to beat too fast and maybe you “overreact” to a situation. This is called a flashback. Your brain is responding to the past; not the present.
Where do Trauma Flashbacks Come From?
Flashbacks are our brain’s way of processing traumatic events that we’ve experienced. But what tends to happen is, our subconscious goes to our storage cabinet to access some important memories regarding the event, and everything sort of tumbles out of the cabinet all at once. This falling out or flashback experience can feel almost as traumatic as the initial event.
Flashbacks usually happen without warning. Most result from a “triggering” that occurs by an external experience. Triggers are typically sensory-based experiences that manifest via smells, sounds, tastes, textures that remind the person of the traumatic event. The smell of a specific cologne can remind someone of their perpetrator. The sound of fireworks or a car backfiring can remind a soldier of gunfire.
Tips for Coping with Flashbacks in the Moment
Living with flashbacks is very difficult, but there are some ways you can work through these disturbing events:
Remind Yourself Where You Are
Remind yourself that you are safe and having a flashback. Tell yourself as many times as necessary that these are only memories, the event is in the past, until you can feel yourself begin to calm. In counseling, we work with clients to learn specific grounding techniques to help remind your brain that you are in the present moment. For instance, picking up a grounding stone and closely examining it’s texture, touching a nearby tree, or paying attention to other sensory stimuli.
Sometimes using your five senses can help you to be in the present moment. If one sense it causing the flashback – your sense of smell for example – use your other senses to place yourself in the actual current environment. The tactile experience of stamping your feet on the ground can remind yourself that you are free to get away from any situation that has become uncomfortable for you.
As soon as we become fearful or panicked, our breathing becomes shallow and erratic. This only exacerbates the stress we feel in that moment because our body is literally panicking from a lack of oxygen. In these fearful moments, when we slow our breathing and take deeper and deeper breaths, we actually signal to our brain and body that everything is okay.
While breathing sounds simple, it can be difficult to focus on in the moment if you’re feeling really triggered. You may choose to look for “quick breathing exercises” or a similar query on YouTube.
Acknowledge the Trauma
The initial trauma was awful, so it’s perfectly reasonable for you to want to move on “NOW!” However, you should understand that the body needs to go through this process and experience a full range of emotions. Honor the experience and yourself for having gotten through it. Recognize the traumatic experience in your own mind. Validate to yourself that what you went through was overwhelming and that it’s ok to have these moments right now.
It’s important that you let loved ones know about your flashbacks so they can help you through the process. A supportive friend who sits with you and reminds you to breath can be incredibly helpful! Nobody should have to go through these upsetting moments alone. You may also want to seek the guidance of a professional mental health therapist who can offer coping strategies.
Counseling for Flashbacks & PTSD in Columbia, MO
If you or a loved one is suffering from flashbacks, you may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you would like to explore trauma treatment options, please contact us to set up a counseling intake appointment. Aspire Counseling prides itself on being a trauma therapy clinic. In fact, we have more therapists that treat PTSD & Anxiety than any other mental health concern. We have several different therapists who specialize in treating PTSD and trauma. Our trauma therapists are each trained in at least one evidence based PTSD treatments including Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT).
You don’t have to live in fear that you’ll have a flashback come out of nowhere. You don’t have to avoid reminders of your trauma or list in constant fear. Trauma therapy is very, very effective and we want to help.