4 Tools for Coping with Flashbacks After Trauma

Flashbacks are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress, and the occurrence of these episodes can be debilitating and affect a person’s quality of life.  Many people who experience stressful events are familiar with lingering intrusive thoughts and memories, but flashbacks are more intense and can cause an individual to believe they are experiencing their trauma all over again.  Learning to cope with flashbacks when they occur is an important step in achieving mental wellness for many trauma victims. Although changing your reaction to a flashback will take time and practice, there are several strategies and techniques that have been proven to help those suffering from flashbacks manage these disturbing incidents.

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Here Are Four Tools That Can Help You or Someone You Love to Cope with Trauma-related Flashbacks

1. Recognize that You Are Having a Flashback

The first and most important step in coping with flashback episodes is separating memory from reality.  Many people who experience intense flashbacks feel as if they are transported into a different time and place where they are enduring their trauma and unable to escape.  In order to free yourself from the grasp of the flashback and gain power over the situation, you must be able to identify a flashback and name it as such when it occurs. This will take practice, but with time and consistency, you will soon be able to say, “This is a flashback,” when you feel one coming on.  By identifying the experience as a result of trauma and not reality, you will have more control over the direction of each episode.

2. Get Grounded

Learning to ground yourself is a useful tool for any stressful situation, and can help you to pull yourself out of a flashback.  You can begin grounding yourself by literally planting your feet firmly on the ground. You can even stomp your feet if you need to, reminding your body that you are safely on firm ground and capable of running away from danger.  Another aspect of grounding is finding ways to anchor yourself in the present moment. You can do this by activating all five of your senses to observe your surroundings. During a flashback, many people naturally revert inward and further disassociate from reality.  By paying close attention to what you see, hear, and smell you can use your senses to pull yourself back from the memory trying to consume you. You can even activate your sense of taste by chewing gum or eating a piece of sour candy. An intense flavor can be especially helpful for grounding you in the present moment.  It is also important to resist the urge to physically withdrawal into a ball or slumped posture, and instead stand or sit up straight with your feet on the floor. Child-like postures can feel comforting in the moment, but they encourage your brain to revert to a place of fear and withdrawal.  

3. Verbally State Reality

A flashback is an attack of the past, so it is important to remind yourself of where and when you currently are when one occurs.  It can be helpful to do so verbally, even if it feels a little awkward to state your observations out loud. For example, if your trauma occurred as a child and your flashback makes you feel as if you are living in that time again, begin stating the aspects of your current reality that confirm you are now an adult.  You may want to look at your body and say, “I am tall now. I am an adult.” You can point at items around you that provide evidence of your current life and say things like, “That is my husband’s jacket. This is the couch we picked out together.” These exercises may seem silly when you are not in the middle of a flashback, but being able to define reality is a useful tool when the past and present begin to blur.   

4. Allow Yourself Time to Recover

Managing flashbacks takes time, as well as professional help in most cases.  Don’t pressure yourself into reacting perfectly to your next flashback, or beat yourself up if you feel a flashback got the best of you.  Each flashback experience is physically and emotionally draining, and it is important to take time for self-care after an episode has occurred.  Don’t try to rush back into normal activities when a flashback ends, but instead take some quiet time for yourself to relax and recuperate. It can be helpful to take a warm bath or wrap yourself in a blanket for a nap after a flashback.  Your body is likely recovering from a period of extreme tension, and your mind is attempting to make sense of your experience. Be gentle with yourself in this time. 

Many people with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks, use drugs and alcohol to suppress their painful memories.  Unfortunately, this self-medication can lead to more severe mental health issues as well as addiction. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and mental illness, a quality treatment program can provide you with strategies for maintaining long-term sobriety.  At Renewal Lodge by Burning Tree, you will find a team of compassionate, knowledgeable professionals ready to coach each client through the 12-Steps and beyond. By structuring treatment to fit individual needs, including the identification of co-occurring disorders, Burning Tree facilitates an environment of healing and holistic wellness.  Here, our clients tackle their addictions head-on and harness the power to restructure their lives through high accountability and life skills that foster lasting sobriety. We specialize in treatment for the chronic relapser and believe that with the right tools, you can put an end to the cycle of addiction.

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Dear Renewal Lodge Visitors,

My name is John Bruna, co-founder of the Mindfulness in Recovery® Institute, and more importantly, a grateful member of the recovery community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my recovery in 1984. Of course, I did not achieve continuous recovery through willpower or my own efforts, but through the guidance and caring support of countless others that selflessly taught me how to live through the 12 Steps.

My journey of recovery brought this once homeless, shame-based, traumatized, insecure young man to a life far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I discovered self-worth, the joy of helping others, the gifts of parenting and grandparenting, and most importantly the ability to live a meaningful and purposeful life with integrity.

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