PTSD – How to Deal with Flashbacks

By Ashley Gilmour, clinical psychologist and therapist

Flashbacks are a distressing experience, with which those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are painfully familiar. If you’ve (accurately) been diagnosed with PTSD, you will most likely know how distressing it is to experience flashbacks, especially if you don’t know how to deal with them.

How can you be sure you are experiencing a flashback though?

To experience a flashback, you will feel like that you are back there in the trauma all over again, to the point where you can loose touch with this current reality. For example, a Vietnam war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder was driving when a helicopter flew directly overhead. He stopped the car, pulled over to the side of the road, jumped out, and threw himself into a ditch. The unanticipated sound of the helicopter had taken him back to the time of feeling overwhelmed by incoming enemy fire.

The experience was of re-living the event, not simply remembering it. Flashbacks do not just happen to War veterans with PTSD, they can also happen to everyday people or civilians, who have not been in war.

Who is most likely to develop PTSD?

Going through a trauma is far from a rarity – statistics show that around 60% of men and 50% of women go through at least one trauma in their lives. Men are more likely to experience combat, accidents, physical assault, disaster or witness injury or death, while women are more likely to experience sexual abuse, assault and rape both as children and as adults. What’s more, many cases of PTSD are misdiagnosed and / or left untreated, making the actual incidence rate likely to be higher.

PTSD is not a sign of weakness, although it feels like it, especially because society tells us that we should be “strong” and not have emotional experiences, especially if you’re male. A variety of factors can increase the likelihood of someone developing this disorder, and many of them are impossible to control.

War veterans aren’t the only people who suffer from PTSD, although they may be the most frequently affected. Another big group of sufferers are rape survivors. When triggered, they may begin to feel physical pain or smell something specific that is similar to what they experienced during the rape. This can take them back to the incident happening all over again. It is painful to have to go through a trauma once, let alone to have to go through it over and over again.

Flashbacks can vary in duration and severity. You may be able to sustain some connection with the reality of the present or completely lose awareness of it, losing track of time and / or going back to the traumatic event entirely.

Does this sound familiar? Let me tell you that there absolutely is hope with dealing with and reducing your experiences of flashbacks. Read on to learn five quick tips to deal with flashbacks!

1. Learn what your triggers are

Flashbacks are often triggered by some kind of reminder of a past trauma (i.e., a “trigger”), like going to certain places (veterans going to war museums), seeing or meeting certain people of a particular appearance, certain smells, objects etc. By learning what your triggers are, you can prepare yourself by finding ways to cope with your reactions or trying to limit your exposure to these triggers.

The second approach is by far the easier one, and people with PTSD go to great lengths to avoid exposure to triggers. However, this becomes a problem in itself, because avoidance becomes a major and sometimes almost insurmountable barrier to healing. However, in the meantime until you learn how to deal with your triggers, it can be best to try and avoid them so you’re not getting distressed all of the time.

2. Ground yourself

Sometimes when you have a flashback, you lose touch with reality (this current reality or “present moment”), as mentioned. To deal with this, you need to ground yourself back into this present moment and you could do this by things like hold a pillow and notice what it feels like, wrap yourself in a blanket tightly and feel the pressure, or sit in a specific place in your home that makes you feel safe and notice what is around you – these are great ways to draw boundaries and feel protected from the oncoming assault of the flashback.

3. Identify early warning signs

Early warning signs of a flashback about to  happen are not the same thing as knowing your triggers – the trigger comes before the early warning signs. Early warning signs of a flashback about to occur can include surroundings that start to appear fuzzy or distant. To work out what your early warning signs are, think back to your last flashback and what you first notice starting to happen to your experience. Did you start to break out in a sweat? Did your body start to fill up with intense fear? Write these down so you can remember them. It may also help to try to go back to what you were thinking or feeling right before the flashback started to regain control of the situation and remind yourself that it’s just your past trauma being triggered.

4. Keep saying to yourself that the worst is over

A flashback is irrational in itself, so it may seem pointless to try to rationalize it, but you can try. Try to convince yourself that the feelings you are experiencing are merely remnants of the past. The actual event has come and gone and you have lived through it. Remind yourself of where you are now, and what the current date is, that the trauma is no longer happening anymore.

Doing this can be even more difficult if you don’t realize you are having a flashback. A therapist can help you.

5. Ask for help

Get someone to support you if you are aware that you may be facing a risk of a flashback. The person or people should know you and your triggers well and what to do when or if you are having a flashback to  pull you out of reliving the trauma and help to ground you back into the present moment where you are safe. For instance, if you going somewhere where you know that you could potentially be triggered, have your support person provide you with physical touch, or as they walk alongside you to be verbally reminding you of where you are and what the date is, and that you are safe. They can also do this for you when you are in the midst of a flashback. Explain to them what the indicators or signs are for you that you are in the midst of a flashback as they may not know what these are for you.

Seeking Professional Help

Ultimately, the best way to protect yourself from recurrent flashbacks is to engage in professional help with a Clinical Psychologist trained in treating PTSD and trauma. This is important as the flashbacks may be a sign that you are having a hard time dealing with the traumatic event; that the past trauma hasn’t been properly integrated by your mind and body. Therapy can help with this. Flashbacks can and do sometimes just stop happening without professional intervention, though they can tend to get more frequent and distressing, and thus more debilitating where for some people they end up not being able to leave their homes because of the triggers being highly present in their out-of-home environment.

I am a clinical psychologist and certified therapist with understanding, empathy and extensive experience treating people who are suffering from PTSD and trauma. The PTSD experience can be an isolating and scary road without adequate and professional support. I am here to help , feel free to give me a call to discuss how I may be able to help you manage and reduce your flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms. You can contact my practice on 07 5574 3888, or send an email to [email protected].

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