Flashbacks can take many forms. Children and adults can have emotional flashbacks. Veterans can have combat flashbacks. They are part of the aftermath of trauma for many people.
A person can experience trauma after an overwhelming experience, such as violence or an accident. Trauma may result from living with others who feel unsafe, such as parents or caregivers who were scary or shaming.
In a trauma flashback, you may feel a rush of thoughts and feelings like you are reliving a terrible experience. Vivid memories can make you feel out of touch with your present day surroundings.
Flashbacks can trigger intense emotions and sudden reactions that are beyond your momentary control. You may suddenly jump or panic. You may raise your arms to block out other people, duck or run from loved ones. You may dive for cover. You may freeze, and be unable to speak. You may yell or even burst out swearing at yourself without wanting to — these may be shame flashbacks. Spontaneous reactions like these are among the many ways people experience flashbacks.
Flashbacks can make you feel hopeless and helpless. But you can learn ways to help yourself become more fully present in your daily life.
As trauma-informed therapists, we are here to help you and your loved ones heal from the many challenges of trauma, such as flashbacks. That’s why we’re sharing 10 tips to help halt flashbacks for yourself or someone you care about.
These tips are not a replacement for therapy. It is important to work with a trauma-informed therapist if you think you may be suffering from flashbacks. A trauma-informed therapist creates a safe environment where you build skills to understand and heal the impact of what you experienced.
10 Tips to Halt Flashbacks
1) Sip water. If intense thoughts and feelings from the past intrude and overwhelm your present awareness, these may be flashbacks. A tip to halt a flashback: Take a sip of water. This activates the pre-frontal cortex, which reconnects you with the present.
2) Use 5 senses. A trauma flashback can intrude when you least expect it. Try to activate each of the 5 senses. What do you see? What can you smell, touch, taste, and hear around you?
3) Find a favorite scent. Even if you were too young to remember a traumatic event, your body may still replay the experience, and flood your sense of the present. This is an implicit flashback. To restore your present awareness, use a scent you like – like hand lotion with an aroma. This helps you feel present in a safer place.
4) Feel the ground. If you feel flooded by a stress response that doesn’t fit the situation, you may be having a flashback. To help you feel safer in the present, feel your feet on the ground. Notice the sensations in the place where you are sitting or standing.
5) Cool with ice. Do strong, upsetting thoughts or feelings take over your mind, and wipe out your sense of the present? Hold ice briefly in your hand. This intense sensation can help bring you back to the current place and time.
6) Turn on the music. For trauma survivors, flashbacks can drown out the present with a flood of overwhelming sensations from the past. To disrupt a flashback, play your favorite music and sing along (stimulating the pre-frontal cortex to know the words).
7) Use movement. Flashbacks take you out of your present awareness, with sensations from past trauma coming to life if they are current. Practicing yoga or Pilates can help halt flashbacks by using movement and breath to feel grounded and safe in your body.
8) Seek a familiar object. Flashbacks are linked to past traumas that have yet to resolve. If your current place is safe, remind yourself in as many ways as possible where you are right now and that it’s safe — touch your car keys, phone, wedding ring, clothing — to help yourself feel safe and present to your current life.
9) Breathe. This helps calm feelings of panic that can happen during a flashback. When panicked, muscles may tense and breathing becomes shallow and short — which can heighten panic. Take slow deep breaths in and out. Getting the air you need is soothing, and deep breathing interrupts the automatic alarm signals from your body.
10) Talk it through. Tell yourself you are having a flashback. Hold any hopeless, helpless feelings with compassion. Tell yourself the danger is past, and cannot hurt you now. Let your inner adult comfort your inner child, with whatever words you find soothing: “You had a flashback. You felt scared, and now the danger is gone. You’re okay. I’ve got you. We are here, and we are safe.”
With appropriate trauma-informed care, you can develop new strengths to feel safer, and find more joy in life and in yourself.
If you are looking for safe, expert counseling to make positive, fulfilling changes, we are here for you.
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