Flashbacks – how to handle them yourself.

Just for those who don’t have them I should answer the obvious question.

What are flashbacks?

A flashback a psychological phenomenon in which an individual has a sudden, usually powerful, re-experiencing of a past experience or elements of a past experience. These experiences can be happy, sad, exciting, or any other emotion one can consider.The term is used particularly when the memory is recalled involuntarily, and/or when it is so intense that the person “relives” the experience, unable to fully recognize it as memory and not something that is happening in “real time”.

A bit of science about it please?

Negative flashbacks that are very intense are usually associated with Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Several brain regions have been implicated in the neurological basis of flashbacks. The medial temporal lobes, the precuneus, the posterior cingulate gyrus and the prefrontal cortex are the most typically referenced with regards to involuntary memories. Brain imaging studies have shown flashbacks activate areas associated with memory retrieval.

Memory has typically been divided into sensory, short term, and long term processes. According to Rasmuseen & Berntsen, 2009, “long-term memory processes may form the core of spontaneous thought”. Thus the memory process most related to flashbacks is long term memory. As well, studies by Rasmuseen & Berntsen, 2009, have shown that long term memory is also susceptible to extraneous factors such as recency effect, arousal and rehearsal. Compared to voluntary memories, involuntary memories show shorter retrieval times and little cognitive effort. Finally, involuntary memories arise due to automatic processing, which does not rely on higher-order cognitive monitoring, or executive control processing. Voluntary memory is normally associated with contextual information, which is what allows for correspondence between time and place, this is not true of flashbacks. According to Brewin, Lanius et, al, 2009, flashbacks, are disconnected from contextual information, and as a result are disconnected from time and place.

To date, the specific causes of flashbacks have not yet been confirmed. Several studies have proposed various potential factors. Gunasekaran et al., 2009, indicate there may be a link between food deprivation and stress on the occurrence of flashbacks.

Neurologists suggest temporal lobe seizures may also have some relation.

On the reverse side, several ideas have been discounted in terms of their causing flashbacks. Tym et al., 2009, suggest this list includes medication or other substances, Charles Bonnet syndrome, delayed palinopsia, hallucinations, dissociative phenomena, and depersonalization syndrome.Flashbacks are often associated with mental illness as they are a symptom and a feature in diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Flashbacks have also been observed in people suffering from manic depression, depression, homesickness, near-death experiences, epileptic seizures, and drug abuse. Some researchers have suggested that the use of some drugs can cause a person to experience flashbacks;users of lysergic acid diethylamide sometimes report “acid flashbacks”. While other studies show that the use of drugs, specifically cannabis.

So what do I do when I’m having one?

It’s all well for people to say see a psychiatrist or a therapist. But that doesn’t help you in that moment. So here’s what you do:

1. Tell yourself you’re having a flashback.2. Remind yourself that it’s not happening; the worst is over and the sensations and memory are just a feeling and will go.
3. Get grounded. This is important. Stamp your feet on the ground so that the person in your memory, be it the child, the teenager or the adult knows you have feet and can get away if you need to because chances are when it was happening you couldn’t.
4. Breathe. When we get frightened we stop normal breathing. As a result our body begins to panic because we haven’t got enough oxygen. Lack of oxygen causes a great deal of panic feelings; pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint, shakiness, dizziness. When we breathe deeply enough, a lot of the panic feeling can decrease.
5. Re-establish you’re in the present. Use your senses. Look around you and see the colours, see the room and the shapes, see the people near you, listen to them. Listen to your breathing, the traffic, birds, the cars. Feel around you, your clothes, your arms and hands, the chair or floor supporting you.
6. Talk to the child (if it is one, if it’s not than the adult or teenager) suffering in you and tell them they’re OK. It is very important that the child knows that the adult is around to take care of her. The child needs to know that it is safe to experience the feelings and let go of the past.
7. Find your boundaries. Sometimes when we are having a flashback things get out of proportion we lose the sense of where we end and the world begins; as if we do not have skin. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or soft toy, go to bed or sit in a cupboard. Whatever makes YOU feel safe.
8. Get help, not necessarily profession help at this point. Get a friend or relative and explain to them about your flashbacks and let them know what’s right for you whether it’s being alone or being with someone. I know for a lot of people you don’t want to talk about it or tell people so if this point won’t help. Don’t do it until you’re ready.
9. 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.
10. Find a good therapist who understands flashbacks so you can get help and don’t have to be alone. But be patient, it takes time to heal from the past.


20 thoughts on “Flashbacks – how to handle them yourself.

  1. The what to do when you are having one…or rather, coming out of it? Those were interesting. Once you read them it almost sounds obvious…but it is not. Like the stomping down to ground yourself…or the talking to the child part…nods.

    • When you are having one, if you’re coming out of it, the worst is usually over.

      It does sound obvious but a lot of people when having one probably won’t think to stamp their feet because they wouldn’t make the connection. But I know many people who talk to themselves whilst having one. But I think it needed to be said.

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