Today I want to talk about flashbacks – what they are, what it feels like (for those who’ve never experienced it) and how to cope.
Let me start by explaining what a flashback is because that alone can be confusing! I think most people have an idea of what it is, but aren’t sure how to define it and if they haven’t personally experienced will find it hard to imagine the sheer intensity of it.
Out of pure laziness (I’m still unwell and completely exhausted) I’ve resorted to Wikipedia’s simplified explanation of a flashback. “A flashback, or involuntary recurrent memory, is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual has a sudden, usually powerful, re-experiencing of a past experience or elements of a past experience. These experiences can be happy, sad, exciting, or any other emotion one can consider.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”.”
Whilst it’s explained that flashbacks can reflect any emotion I’m choosing to focus on those filled with the more negative emotions – fear, panic, anxiety, sadness. For people with a trauma history (and “trauma” can mean so many different things to different people) flashbacks can be intrusive and terrifying. I’ve also found that flashbacks can be triggered by specific things (words/topics, smells, situations) but can also come out of nowhere. I think everyone’s experience is very personal so I can only explain my own, but keep in mind that the ways in which flashbacks present can vary.
Often my mind is flooded with images, but not a long scene of some traumatic event. It’s all broken up into pieces, a couple of seconds long, often out of order and utterly confusing. The images can trigger some anxiety and fill me with dread – I know how intense the experience can be and I don’t like it. Then there’s the emotions that go with the flashbacks – terror, panic, sometimes sadness. Words will appear in my head. Words that describe the jumbled scene being played out in my mind. Usually only a few words but those few words are repeated endlessly. There is often physical sensations associated with the flashbacks – being pinned down, being choked. Tears stream down my face uncontrollably. I shake. I struggle to catch my breath. Often I’ll be somewhat dissociated which doesn’t help.
That paints a picture of the worst flashbacks I’ve experienced. They’re not always so intense and don’t always include each element. Sometimes I’ll only be flooded with intense and inappropriate (to the current situation) emotions. My words here don’t convey the intensity of the experience.
So flashbacks are intense, terrifying, unsettling and incredibly intrusive. What now? What do you do afterwards? How do you cope? This is something that will vary from person to person. Everyone will have their own way of self-soothing and have some things that help and some that don’t, but I think grounding and self-soothing are key.
This means becoming more present. Reminding yourself that it’s 2013, you’re safe, nothing bad is happening now. It’s much easier said than done and definitely takes practice – the link above explains in more detail.
Self-soothing is a fairly self-explanatory concept but also a tricky one. Most people could explain that it’s a way of soothing oneself. Simple, right? Nope. Many people struggle with how to actually do this. That’s the tricky part and it’s something that does require some time, effort and practice. It’s easiest to create a list of things when you’re feeling okay and can think clearly. Keep in mind that different things work for different people – what’s soothing for me may be triggering for someone else.
After a flashback I’ll do what I need to become more grounded and present and then work on self-soothing. Some of these things overlap, for me, so they are both grounding and soothing. I like to curl up in bed, under the covers with lots of comfy pillows and a teddy bear. Sometimes a warm drink, even just a mug of warm milk is nice. I use my weighted blanket for grounding and soothing. I find the weight very comforting and reassuring. Sometimes a hot bath is helpful, but that can also be triggering.
It’s useful to have a list of grounding and self-soothing activities so you can refer to them when needed. In the middle of flashbacks or whilst in a dissociative state you tend not to be able to think clearly. Having a list of activities that work for you is incredibly useful.