A flashback occurs without warning like a bolt of lightning.
Worse though, you don't get the sense that the memory is coming from the past. That's why it's so disturbing.
You're feeling the exact moment of a traumatic event . . . yes, as if it's happening all over again.
The key to stopping flashbacks
The key to stopping flashbacks is preventing them in the first place. That means changing your overall physiological state. It's about shifting your set point for arousal so you're less triggered into a flashback.
That's the beginning half the equation.
The second half of the equation—once your physiological set-point is reset—is to process the underlying charge associated with the memory so it becomes time-stamped and re-filed in your brain as: "it happened in the past and it's not happening now".
The first part of this equation—changing your physiology—takes a consistent effort. It is absolutely achievable though. Folks who regularly do yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido and anyone doing body-based therapy are doing just that.
You can speed up this process by applying the principles used by these activities in more precise ways. That will change and rewire your brain.
If you're just looking for quick ways to help you get through a flashback find the tips below.
How flashbacks and other memories are stored in the brain
First, understand that flashbacks are not the same as ordinary bad memories.
They're a sudden "re-living" of a traumatic event.
You're going back in time and reliving the moment.
For example, let's say you recall accidently hitting your head last week. When it pops in your mind you don't actually feel the pain you felt at the time.
Contrast that to a flashback. You're "re-living" the memory and all the freak out sensations you had at the time.
Some flashbacks are relatively mild and easily dismissed. Others are so intense they can stop you from leaving home for fear of being triggered out of the blue.
Stopping a flashback is different than suppressing
Re-experiencing a traumatic event in a flashback does not necessarily expose everything that actually happened. Ordinarily only fragments of the event are remembered and re-experienced.
Sometimes, you have no clue where the memory comes from. This is super tough because you have no control when a flashback gets triggered.
And, flashbacks are not restricted to images. They take many forms including body sensations, specific smells, dreams (nightmares), sounds or intense emotions.
Let me give you an example . . .
You've been in a nasty car accident. It's been six months and your body is all healed. In this moment, you're preparing dinner, cutting carrots and then you see blood. You've cut your finger. Suddenly, you're transported back in time. You're freaking out.
Every sense in your body tells you that your life is at stake.
The sinking feeling in your stomach, the dread, the panic.
Instinctively, you know it's got nothing to do with the cut on your finger.
You're experiencing a flashback.
Flashbacks are remembered in fragments due to the way the memory system is set up in the brain. This is because the trauma response releases hormones in the blood that are toxic to our hippocampal memory system (i.e. our explicit memory system).
But our body felt memory, thought to reside—among other places—in the amygdala, is not subject to the same decay, so the felt experience of the body usually survives the traumatic event intact.
That body sense memory is stuck in time.
It hasn't yet been processed so your brain knows it's from the past. It believes it's an event that's occurring right now.
Be kind to yourself to stop a flashback
When you're having a flashback, you're being triggered into a state of fear. And, when human beings become fearful we can be easily launched into a child-like state.
Like trying to calm down child in a thunderstorm, harsh language will typically not help to stop a flashback.
Fear is right-brain-based. The right brain doesn't understand language like the left brain. Soothing, gentle language on the other hand, produces much better results because the right brain hears the tone of voice and uses this to make assessments of what is being said.
So, keep this in mind as you attempt to calm yourself down.
Here's a few other tips:
How to slow down and stop a flashback
You may have already thought of these (sometimes it just takes another person to state it for it to sink in):
- Remind yourself that you have been triggered. Be gentle and patient with yourself. You were triggered unknowingly and you haven't done anything wrong to create it.
- Look for signs of safety in your immediate environment. Allow your eyes to cast about the room noticing things that make you feel safe.
- Move to the best seat in the room. Grab a pillow, a blanket or anything that creates additional feelings of safety.
- Feel your seat and/or your back against the chair, couch or bed. If you are standing, feel your feet.
- Notice and track your breath. Do not force your breath to change but allow yourself to notice it.
- Seek out a nearby friend or give that person a call. Chatting with a close friend will help to re-connect you to the present.
Changing your physiological state
I mentioned earlier that the first half of the equation for preventing and stopping flashbacks is to change your physiological state. That means resetting your threshold for being triggered (Also known as resetting your activation level).
In other words, you need to be overall calmer inside.
What does that look like?
It means being in a slightly calmer place when you wake in the morning. It's the state of mind you achieve after a really good vacation. The difference is you're able to sustain that state.
Why? For one good reason: Memories—including traumatic ones—are filed in the brain based on the physiological state you're in at the time the memory gets laid down.
The second half to getting rid of flashbacks for good
Many people are good at thinking through a traumatic event and feeling that they've moved on. Then one day suddenly out of blue they're triggered. They realize they're not completely done.
When the brain cannot process a bad memory - as I mentioned earlier - it means it's stuck in a time warp. In order to process the memory, it's necessary to process it in a way that addresses how it's actually filed.
In other words, it's filed physiologically.
The best way to address your physiology is somatically. (That means through your body.)
Basically, you need to process the underlying charge associated with the traumatic event and channel all the unprocessed feelings and sensations through your body so they are finally time-stamped—and behind you.
Moving out of freeze
If you want to get a good sense of how a flashback is experienced by another person watch the movie, "Ray" about the legendary entertainer, Ray Charles. It's as close a depiction of flashbacks as I've seen.
You may also find it interesting that nine months after experiencing a traumatizing event--that would haunt him half a life time--Ray Charles Robinson went blind. Something to think about, eh?
Is it normal to get aggressive after a flashback?
Hi. I have learned a bit about what I am going through with the flashbacks.I have a question. Is it normal to get a little bit aggressive towards others after experiencing a flashback?
I am 19 and I have no idea how to cope with the flashbacks since they get triggered all the time.If you could email me some information on what I asked,I would really appreciate it.
Hi Chris, yes it's "normal" to feel aggressive after a flashback. Not everyone feels aggressive of course. It depends on one's history and the capacity of the nervous system to handle the increase in activation that comes from a flashback.
Because flashbacks are a re-experiencing of memory fragments of an earlier trauma, they tend to max out our circuits...so to speak. This increase in activation moves us into the fight or flight response...and hence from where feelings of anger often arise.
Your best bet Chris is to find a therapist who can help you contain the activation. As your nervous system begins to regulate itself, it's very likely they will cease to surface.
This flashback freaked me out!
This might sound utterly ridiculus, but here goes- I am not afraid of most things in my environment beyond a healthy fear. (snakes-bite, spiders too) But I fear something that I have no rational explanation for and they can't hurt me. Worms- "they gross me out" so to speak. I enjoy gardening, and I do not mind seeing the critters- in fact sometimes I carefully remove them to my neighbors yard- as I know they are good for the soil. I can hold one, but the problem occurs when I am surprised by one of them. They make me nauceus.
The other day while in the garden- doing the gardening thing, a worm crawled into the side of my sandal. Well, I freaked- screaming- shaking my foot, then ran, I mean bolted into the house. I was so nauceous that I was unable to finish gardening. That was a week ago. And I have not been back in the garden yet.I have had other embarrassing worm experiences too. This is ...no negative terms...limiting.
My question- is this some sort of a flashback revealing itself as a body sensation, and what can I do about it. I am too embarrassed to bring this up to the therapist. (and I do have a good therapist - attuned and all) I think it is stupid or silly- but I can't get past it. Even writing about this makes me feel a bit queasy. Thanks.
This was so curious Helen, I decided to ask my colleague Dr. Carole for input. We both agreed it didn't appear to be a phobia. If it was a phobia, then we would both surmise that you wouldn't be able to hold a worm.
It seems that being surprised is at the root of your response. It may be that as long as you are prepared for a worm you are okay. It's when there is an unanticipated "attack" that you reach your tipping point.
Your reaction does have the characteristics of a flashback in that the sensations of a worm triggers a heightened arousal pattern in your body. It's so high that when you fail to see a worm coming, you move into a flight response, bolting into your house.
This issue is not silly Helen. Your response is automatic because you're being triggered. Possibly the slime feeling has its root somewhere and your therapist can hopefully help you figure this out.
In working it through with him or her, you may be surprised where it takes you. Dr. Carole reflected that experiences like these are such eye openers to who we are within ourselves and in the world.
All the best,
Shrinklady and Dr. Carole
Can you experience flashbacks even if you don't have PTSD?
Thanks for writing the article and explaining how flashbacks are different from memories. I have memories a lot but used to explain it to my therapist as flashbacks. Now i can recognise the differences.
I have a question, Post traumatic stress disorder has symptoms of flashbacks, i was just wondering if someone could experience flashbacks but not be experiencing PTSD? I love your site.
Oh yes, Emerald, that's entirely possible. When I witnessed my dog receiving some inhumane treatment at the hands of a veterinary techie, I had flashbacks for days after. I'd wake up in the night finding myself right back there in a frozen state of alarm. (BTW both me and Bobbi are fine now.)
I did not have "PTSD". For this to occur the incident would first need to be of such severity that there was a threat of death or serious injury. I would have to have other symptoms as well.
I like your question Emerald as it prompts me to rant on a bit about an important topic...
As you may already know, PTSD is a collection of symptoms that a board of experts (the folks who wrote the DSM) identified as such. Flashbacks are only one of the symptoms. A certain number of symptoms must be present in a degree of severity to qualify for that diagnosis.
Not everyone agrees with their assessment of what is descriptive of PTSD. Many folks who do body psychotherapy are in disagreement for instance, on the DSM's description of what entails a traumatic event. We see the effects of trauma in our work on a daily basis and recognize what the medical community calls "traumatic" is far too limiting. We see trauma in events that some diagnosticians would not normally conceive as traumatic.
Trauma affects each person differently and its effects are determined by the state of the nervous system at the time of the event.
You see, each nervous system responds differently to a stressful event.
So much has to do with one's personal history (because the emotional and physical aftereffects of stressors tend to "add up" inside) and how resilient a nervous system is in it's capacity to navigate a potentially overwhelming situation.
So, some folks may be traumatized by a fender bender while for others, it takes a surgery or painful dental procedure. And, still others may not have the same experience even during these situations.
Hence, there are too many folks who don't fit the defined PTSD symptoms who are disqualified from receiving treatment. We hope that one day this situation changes.
Glad you like the site Emerald,
Bye for now,
Can flashbacks be entirely eliminated?
Interesting question Ross. It's been my experience that clients eventually stop getting flashbacks. Some folks never get another flashback quite soon after starting treatment.
However, it's my guess that if circumstances are such that the individual is challenged in an unusual way, the flashbacks--for that event--may return. And, of course, the brain will always have the capacity for flashbacks for other future events.