Flashbacks are not unusual for individuals who have experienced or been through a traumatic experience. Flashbacks are, therefore, normal and are a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or complex-PTSD (c-PTSD).
Flashbacks often arise from a trigger, something that sets off a memory tape, which transports the individual back to the event in their past.
- Triggers are very personal and different things will trigger different people. They are activated through one or more of the five senses that we have, ie sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
PTSD is a normal reaction to events that are outside the range of normal human experience. PTSD stops the rational mind from being in charge of our thoughts and feelings and basic emotions like fight, flight or freeze take over.
Flashbacks can be a way in which a traumatic memory resurfaces, as a symptom of having not yet had the chance to process the trauma adequately.
During a flashback, the traumatic event (or a part of it) can feel, very much, as if you are re-experiencing that traumatic event again. Flashbacks, therefore, can be extremely frightening and distressing experiences.
Further information on management of flashbacks can be found on the NAPAC website (http://napac.org.uk/), or reproduced here for ease of reference:
Coping with Flashbacks
Flashbacks are an involuntary recall of past traumatic events. They may be experienced as pictures, sounds, smells, feelings, or the lack of them (emotional numbness). You may feel panicky, or trapped. You may feel powerless without knowing why. These experiences can also happen in dreams. Sometimes they are experienced together with a self-critical voice or hearing an abuser’s voice again.
As a child you had to protect yourself from the emotional and physical horrors of abuse. In order to survive, the child had to submit to the abuse, unable to express the feelings and thoughts of that time. Children cannot make any sense of cruelty inflicted on them. But adults can slowly process these painful memories. Flashbacks and nightmares are a sign of the subconscious mind starting to process the memories. As such, they are a sign of recovery.
When memories come back, the child part in you is experiencing the past as if it were happening today. As the flashback happens you may forget that you have an adult self who is available for comfort, protection and grounding. The extreme feelings and bodily sensations are so frightening because they are not related to the present and often seem to come out of the blue.
You may think you are going mad and are afraid of telling anyone about what is happening. But learning some simple grounding techniques and talking about it with someone you trust will help to manage the intense emotions that accompany flashbacks.
What does help? Tell yourself out loud that you are having a flashback.
Remind yourself that the worst is over. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories of the past. You are now processing those painful memories, which is difficult and frightening work.
Breathe. When we get frightened we stop normal breathing. As a result, our body begins to panic because we don’t get enough oxygen. Lack of oxygen causes even more panic. You may experience pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint, shakiness and dizziness. When we breathe deeply and slowly the feelings of panic can decrease (see below for breathing techniques).
Talk to the child part in you and say it is OK. It is very important that the child part knows that your adult self is around and available. The child needs to know that it is safe to experience the feelings and let go of the past.
Find your boundaries. When in flashback you may lose the sense of where you end and the world begins. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or soft toy, go to bed or sit in a safe place as a way of finding your boundaries
Get help. You may need to be alone or you may want someone near you. In either case it is important that your close friends know about your flashbacks so they can help with the process, whether that means letting you be by yourself or being there with you, whatever is right for you.
Take time to regain control. Sometimes flashbacks are very powerful. Don’t expect yourself to be able to do adult things immediately. Be kind and look after you. Do something that you enjoy.
Be patient. It takes time to heal the past. It takes time to learn ways of taking care of yourself, of being an adult who has feelings and developing effective ways of coping in the here and now.
Working with a therapist can be a crucial part of the healing process. You can find out where your nearest specialist centre is through The Survivors Trust website or contact CIS’ters or NAPAC for more information.
Remember: as a child you experienced something that ought not to have happened. PTSD and c-PTSD is a normal consequence and within that, flashbacks are a normal part of healing.