Flashbacks, PTSD and You

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Of all the PTSD symptoms, flashbacks are some of the worst. They interrupt our sleep and our waking hours without warning. They chew us up and spit us out leaving us spent, exhausted and retraumatized. Flashbacks can really hurt us as they activate our amygdala, the crisis response center in the brain, and throw our entire nervous system into high gear. In the worst cases, we can momentarily lose touch with reality and become totally engulfed in a full body replay of traumatic events. As we heal from PTSD, it becomes essential to get a grasp on flashbacks and slowly eliminate them.

What are flashbacks?

Flashbacks are an involuntary and intrusive experience of a memory. Flashbacks can involve any combination of the senses: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (or feeling state), taste and smell. I have found that many people with traumatic pasts enter flashbacks regularly without knowing they are having one. Movie type flashbacks are obvious; for example a soldier experiencing himself back on the battle field. But flashbacks can also be, for example, an overpowering feeling of helplessness and abandonment in the present that is not in proportion to a current event.

I have come to see flashbacks as part of the body/mind’s attempt to heal. Persistent flashbacks are like a telephone ringing, or someone knocking at your door. They are your unconscious mind demanding that traumatic events in your past be dealt with and healed. Like a persistent visitor, the knocking will only get louder and more in your face if you don’t answer the door.

How can I get rid of flashbacks?

There is only one way to really get rid of flashbacks for good, and that is to dive deep into your mind and heal your PTSD by dealing with the traumatic events that caused your injury. I realize that this is not the answer that many want to hear. It is a bit like saying the only way out of your burning house is to walk straight through the fire. In the meantime there are things you can do to lessen the severity of flashbacks and help those around you cope with them:

– Learn your triggers and inform those closest to you. The more you know what causes flashbacks, the more control you have over them. Keep a log or map them, either mentally or on paper.

– Develop a twice-daily practice of invoking the relaxation response and by that I mean something like yoga, tai chi, progressive relaxation or centering prayer. Not drugs, TV or other escapist types of activities. These techniques have been shown to improve recovery time from flashbacks and decrease their intensity and frequency.

– Strengthen your mind! Flashbacks are a time disorder. Your mind gets sucked back to the time and place of injury. Don’t let that happen! Learn to stay in the present moment through meditation and grounding exercises. That way, when a flashback hits you can stay present and not get swept away in the memory.

– Talk about it. Ever since Freud discovered the “talking cure” we have known there is something magical about telling others about our difficulties. The more we process verbally, the less grip these events and memories have over us. If your memories are too intense to share with loved ones find a good trauma therapist (see my blog on finding a good trauma therapist!).

– Do not blame your self. Shame and flashbacks go hand in hand, and are often a part of the trauma being re-experienced. Be gentle with yourself and realize that this is a process that will take time to resolve.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. PTSD can be healed. That means you will reach a point where flashbacks are no longer a part of your life, at least not in such a pernicious form. We may always have unpleasant memories but when trauma is resolved, they no longer have the power to hurt us.

Blessings on your journey of healing.

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