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Coping with Flashbacks

This blog is part of a series of articles about handling intense emotions and focuses on coping with flashbacks. Most of us are familiar with the concept of flashbacks – we know that soldiers who are war Veterans may experience flashbacks when they are in situations that are similar to a traumatic event from the past. For example, a combat Veteran may have flashbacks to his or her time in the military when war scenes are shown on TV or in a movie or when a car backfires.

What people often are unaware of is that there are also FEELING flashbacks rather than visual or auditory flashbacks (although there may be other components such as images, sounds or smells or tastes). Emotional flashbacks are experiences of strong emotions that often come in waves and are brought on by a triggering event. One common theme that people who have this type of flashbacks describe is that they sort of emotionally “fling” us into an emotional experience totally mismatched to our present experience. The following flashback drill is a really helpful tool that I have taught to many of my clients:

The Flashback Drill 

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

2. Remind yourself that the worst is over – it happened in the past, but it is not happening now. “That was then, and this is now”. The “child‟ or  traumatised person inside 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. 

3. Call on the “adult‟ or stronger part of you to tell your child or traumatised part, that she/he is not  alone, not in any danger now, and that you will help her/him to get through this. Let your child  or traumatised self know that it‟s okay to remember and to feel what she/he is feeling and that this will  help her/him in their healing from what happened to them. However hard it is for you, she/he is communicating in the only way she/he can.  NB PEOPLE ALWAYS REPORT BACK TO ME THAT THIS IS AN EXTREMELY IMPORTANT STEP.

4. Try some of these ways of “grounding‟ yourself, and becoming more aware of the present:

  • Stand up, stamp your feet, jump up and down, dance about, clap your hands, remind yourself where you are now. 
  • Look around the room, notice the colours, the people, the shapes of things. Make it  more real. 
  • Listen to and really notice the sounds around you: the traffic, voices, washing  machine, music etc. 
  • Notice the sensations in your body, the boundary of your skin, your clothes, the chair  or floor supporting you. 
  • Pinch yourself or ping an elastic band on your wrist – that feeling is in the now, the things you are  re-experiencing were in the past. 

5. Take care of your breathing: breathe deeply down to your diaphragm; put your hand there  (just above your navel) and breathe so that your hand gets pushed up and down. Imagine  you have a balloon in your tummy, inflating it as you breathe in, and deflating as you breathe out. When we get scared, we breathe too  quickly and shallowly and our body begins to panic because we’re not getting enough oxygen. This causes dizziness, shakiness and more panic. Breathing slower and deeper will stop the panic. 

6. 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, the boundary of you.  Wrap yourself in a blanket, feel it around you. 

7. Get support if you would like it. Let people close to you know about flashbacks so they can  help if you want them to. That might mean holding you, talking to you, helping you to  reconnect with the present, to remember you are safe and cared for now. 

Remember: Flashbacks are powerful experiences which drain your energy.  Take time to look after yourself when you have had a flashback.  You could have a warm, relaxing bath or a sleep, a warm drink,  play some soothing music, or just take some quiet time for yourself. Your “child‟ or and you deserve being taken care of, given all you‟ve been through. 

When you feel ready, write down or mentally go back through all you can remember about the flashback, and how you got  through it. This is to remind you that  you did get through it (and can again). My next blog will look at a similar way of coping with flashbacks suggested by writer and counsellor Pete Walker. 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: Panic Attacks

How to Manage Intense Emotions

Emotional Flashbacks