There is no delicate way to put it: flashbacks are just awful. Whether you've just started having these upsetting and intrusive symptoms, or you've been fighting with them for years, we know how challenging and exhaustive they can be! Thankfully, a wide variety of tools and skills exist that can help you break free -- each one highly customizable to your specific needs. That said, some of the very best resources out there can take some time, and a lot of practice, before you've shaped them into the go-to symptom management tools you need. Skills like imagery, containment, split-screen, etc. are incredibly valuable, but they can be quite advanced, and even turn some away from using them altogether if introduced too soon. For those new to their healing, you may need options that are very straightforward and uncomplicated. For those with an entire workshop of tools already, we know it's still possible for giant waves of new or stubborn material to put your best skills out of reach. Items that are extremely easy to recall in a time of panic or crisis may be the only things at your disposal. We hope to be able to offer you exactly that.
Before we get too far, let's first define what a flashback is! Whether you're a trauma survivor yourself or a loved one/supporter of one and are trying to learn more, you may be surprised to learn there are different types of flashbacks:
So, what can you do?
We recognize that half the battle when you're struggling is just being able to remember that these tools even exist and are available to you. When you're terrified, feeling very young, or you aren't oriented to the present, it can be really hard to even recognize that you're symptomatic. Try to be compassionate with yourself (or your loved one or patient) about this. Years upon years, sometimes decades, have been spent responding to distress and fear in the same exact way; it is very hard to retrain the brain to a different response when you're only presented a chance every so often. Also, flashbacks stem from a completely different section of our daily-functioning brain. It's hard work to override that circuitry, and none of us think very rationally or critically when we're flooded with fear and adrenaline. But, with practice, and by trying to utilize these skills as early as you can in your symptoms, you'll find that they become more habitual and automatic, taking less conscious effort and becoming more like muscle memory.
Let's get to it!
Your absolute number one, first line of defense for any posttraumatic symptom is to be grounded -- or at least substantially more grounded than you are. None of your other skills will be effective if you aren't grounded first. (You can learn more about what it means to be grounded, as well as have an entire list of 101 Grounding Techniques to use, right here on our website!) We know it can sometimes feel really impossible to practice grounding before you've put a memory away, because that memory is what's fueling your dissociation and making you ungrounded. But, if you're heavily dissociated, and stuck in the past, you're only putting the memory away in the past - not in the here and now. It will continue to find you. As you start the grounding process, you'll find that some of the intensity of the past material backs down, which frees you up to use any other skills (like containment or modulation) that you may have fully, which takes things down another notch, allowing you to get even more grounded, and so forth.
What are some of you best, most-easily accessible grounding tools?:
- Open your eyes. Uncover your ears. Make as many senses available as you can!
- Look around. Try to label 5 things you can see, 5 things of a single color, 5 things of one shape.
- Listen. What do you hear? Is it close or far? Loud or soft? Pleasant or grating?
- Open up, feet on the floor. If you're curled into a ball, or have your feet tucked up on the chair, try to put them on the floor and press your feet into the ground.
- De-trance. If you are rocking, tapping, or engaging in other rhythmic or trancing motions, try to start slowing them down to a stop or make sure they're no longer a pattern.
- Sit upright. If you are slouching deep in your seat or laying down, try to sit up. Lying prone can be very disorienting and triggering for many.
- Orient. Remind yourself of the date, your age, where you are, and that you're safe now.
- Movement. If you feel frozen and unable to move, start by just trying to wiggle your toes or finger tips. Slowly work up the body, little by little, until you have movement.
- Smell. Inhale strong fragrances (they don't have to be pleasant!). Coffee, candles, lemon, etc.
- Taste. Chew gum, eat mints, or suck on sours. Eat a meal or snack. Drink a very cold or warm beverage.
- Touch. Run your fingers over unique textures within reach. Your clothes, the furniture, a zipper, a pet, a grounding stone or fidget item.
There are many many other grounding tools you can find in our article, but we'll move on to our next step.
Our inner monologues are far more important and powerful than we tend to give them credit. Self-talk during a flashback can be part of your grounding, or it can be used to keep you calmer and steadier as you employ other techniques. It can be hard to access your grounding skills or other tools if you are in a panic, or can't remember what's happening to you or who you even are. Self-talk can be a vital skill that helps everything else fall into line.
You can say things to yourself like:
- "This is a flashback. It is just a flashback; it is not real. This is not happening right now."
- "I am safe now. No one is presently harming me. There is no external threat to my safety right now."
- "I am an adult now. My name is ______. I am ____ years old. It is 2018."
- "This will not last forever. I have the power to make this symptom go away."
- "I am competent. I am able. I have done this before."
- "It's important that I get grounded. Dissociating can feel safer, but I've learned it puts me and others at risk. I can do this."
- "I can ask for help. I am worthy, even if that's hard to believe right now."
- "I will be okay. This is temporary. I can feel it getting easier already."
Find a mantra or phrase that feels right to you, something you know you'll remember when it's time. Talk yourself through the process. It is healthy and helps keep you planted in reality.
Separating Past from Present
Separating past from present works on many levels as a combination of self-talk, grounding and reality-testing. It's also a tool that outsiders or loved ones can help you with, too! It's not just all up to you! During a flashback, it's very easy to be disoriented from the current time or place. You could feel like you're all the way back in the 80's, believe you're a small child, or just in a completely different environment than you truly are. Taking the time to label - either in your mind, out loud or in writing - all the things that are different now, from the past that you're currently lost in, can help your mind tease apart what was once very unsafe from the security you're currently in.
- "It is 2018, not [fill in the date/timeframe of the flashback]"
- "I am a strong, competent adult now; I am no longer a helpless child."
- *look at body* "These are adult hands and feet. I am taller now." Observe other physical changes like tattoos, body modifications, health changes, even wrinkles or grey hairs.
- "There were no smartphones back then. TVs didn't look like this. I didn't have a laptop or desktop computer like this."
- "I live on my own now. This is MY house/apartment. I can drive now. I have children/a spouse/a partner now. These are my car keys."
- "I have a voice. Before I would have been too scared to even make a sound right now." [Then use your voice in any form to prove to yourself it's safe to do so.]
- Label any changes about your abuser(s): their age, location, relationship to you, living status, etc.
- Label any other major life changes: geographic locations, jobs/professions, people you know now that you didn't back then, other appearance changes
- List (or listen to) popular music, movies, entertainment you enjoy now. Remind yourself these things did not exist back then.
- Acknowledge the positive supports you have in your life now: new pets, friends, a therapist, a partner, family members, etc.
Internal communication is a bit more specific to those with DID/OSDD systems, but it can still be applicable in different ways to those with C-PTSD or PTSD. It is also not exactly an "easy, basic skill" in dissociative disorders, as was the case with the other tools we've offered. This is definitely a bit more of an advanced skill, however, it is very important to include because failing to check inside can often render alllllll your other attempts at grounding/symptom management ineffective. It may come as a surprise to some, but alters in a DID/OSDD system, or even just parts of a less compartmentalized C-PTSD individual, are capable of sending flashbacks your way on purpose. It is not always with nefarious or hurtful intent. It's often with the aim to protect or is used as a means of communication - handing you things they feel are important for you to know/feel/be reminded of/etc. When this is the case, using symptom management to make the flashback go away may just exhaust you.
If you already have some well-established communication inside your mind with parts inside, you can certainly ask them these questions more directly. But, if you aren't there yet, or if you don't have as differentiated alters, you can still send these thoughts back into your mind and see what bubbles up. For those who are just attempting to establish more communication with their systems, sometimes opening that line during a flashback can be the first successful connection that comes through.
Some questions you can ask alters/your mind (then, open yourself up to allow the answers):
- "Is there a reason I'm being shown this flashback right now? Is someone sending this to me?"
- "What are you trying to communicate by making me relive these images/feelings/physical pain?"
- "Is someone else in a flashback but came/got too close to the front of the mind? Can we do a role call and see that everyone is grounded and present?"
- "Are you trying to make me feel as unsafe as YOU feel right now about something happening in our life?"
- "Do you want to scare me back into silence?" "Is this your way of reminding me we aren't supposed to talk or tell anyone?"
- "Are you trying to shut me down? ...make it so that I can't talk/go to work/go out with a friend/accomplish x task/leave the house/etc?" "Why are you afraid of me doing that?"
- "Did something trigger you that I don't know about? Did you see/hear/feel something really familiar that I didn't notice?"
- "Are you feeling ignored? ..like I don't care? ..like I'm not listening to you or taking your feelings into consideration? Are there other ways you could get my attention that don't include re-traumatizing me?"
- "Are you oriented to the present? I know that it's 2018, but do you? How can we work on getting grounded together? Do you need to look through my eyes or feel in the body that we are safe and not in danger right now?"
- "Did someone else inside order you to share this memory with me? If so, you can say so without revealing yourself to me. I want to talk to them, not you; you're not in trouble."
- "Am I being punished for something? Can it be shared with me what I did wrong or which rules I broke without this flashback? I can't have a conversation with you about it or make amends if I can't think straight."
There are many ways to appeal to parts inside to get to the root of why a flashback may have been sent your way. It is also possible to send these thoughts throughout the mind even if you do not have parts or a system. Many aspects of the mind may still be operating under a similar pretenses and using these symptoms as a protective defensive mechanism -- maladaptive as that may be. Appealing internally may strike a chord and enlighten you to what the real issue is. The answer may just "click" the moment you ask, even if you can't hear a direct/"audible" reply. Once that has been discovered, you will be better able to tackle things appropriately, to meet that need or fear, instead of just exhausting yourself on symptoms management skills that won't work until that is resolved.
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We sincerely hope these four basic, foundational tools will be able to help you find relief and distance during a flashback -- no matter what stage you're at in your recovery. Once armed with more stability and a framework from which to work, you can then explore more detailed and elaborate skills with confidence! We will absolutely be covering more imagery, containment, modulation, and journaling skills that are helpful in the fight against flashbacks. (We've already introduced a couple!) So, stay tuned.
Please don't hesitate to share some of your go-to strategies for flashbacks below and consider bookmarking this page for quicker, more direct access should you need it while you're struggling!
MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:
✧ Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
✧ Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201: Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
✧ Imagery 101: Healing Pool and Healing Light
✧ Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller
✧ DID Myths: Dispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
✧ Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID