Flashbacks & Grounding
Flashbacks are an involuntary recall of traumatic events. Grounding techniques can help if you feel panicky, trapped or powerless as a result of a flashback.
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Coping with flashbacks
Flashbacks are an involuntary recall of past traumatic events. They may be experienced as pictures, sounds, smells, feelings, or the lack of them (emotional numbness). You may feel panicky, or trapped. You may feel powerless without knowing why. These experiences can also happen in dreams. Sometimes they are experienced together with a self-critical voice or hearing an abuser’s voice again.
As a child you had to protect yourself from the emotional and physical horrors of abuse. In order to survive, the child had to submit to the abuse, unable to express the feelings and thoughts of that time. Children cannot make any sense of cruelty inflicted on them. But adults can slowly process these painful memories. Flashbacks and nightmares are a sign of the subconscious mind starting to process the memories. As such, they are a sign of recovery.
When memories come back, the child part in you is experiencing the past as if it were happening today. As the flashback happens you may forget that you have an adult self who is available for comfort, protection and grounding. The extreme feelings and bodily sensations are so frightening because they are not related to the present and often seem to come out of the blue.
You may think you are going mad and are afraid of telling anyone about what is happening. But learning some simple grounding techniques and talking about it with someone you trust will help to manage the intense emotions that accompany flashbacks.
Flashbacks are normal
Flashbacks are a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a normal reaction to events that are outside the range of normal human experience. PTSD stops the rational mind from being in charge of our thoughts and feelings, and basic emotions like fight, flight or freeze take over.
What does help?
Tell yourself out loud that you are having a flashback.
Remind yourself that the worst is over. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories of the past. You are now processing those painful memories, which is difficult and frightening work.
Breathe. When we get frightened we stop normal breathing. As a result, our body begins to panic because we don’t get enough oxygen. Lack of oxygen causes even more panic. You may experience pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint, shakiness and dizziness. When we breathe deeply and slowly the feelings of panic can decrease (see below for breathing techniques).
Talk to the child part in you and say it is OK. It is very important that the child part knows that your adult self is around and available. The child needs to know that it is safe to experience the feelings and let go of the past.
Find your boundaries. When in flashback you may lose the sense of where you end and the world begins. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or soft toy, go to bed or sit in a safe place as a way of finding your boundaries
Get help. You may need to be alone or you may want someone near you. In either case it is important that your close friends know about your flashbacks so they can help with the process, whether that means letting you be by yourself or being there with you, whatever is right for you.
Take time to regain control. 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.
Be patient. It takes time to heal the past. It takes time to learn ways of taking care of yourself, of being an adult who has feelings and developing effective ways of coping in the here and now.
Find a competent therapist. Look for a therapist who understands the process of healing after child abuse. Working with a therapist can be a crucial part of the healing process.
Remember: flashbacks are a normal part of healing from abnormal childhood experience
Listen to our tips on how to ground yourself, if you're having a flashback
Connecting to your breath, your five senses and your body is the best way to calm yourself at times when flashbacks or anxiety feel overwhelming. These steps provide easy-to-follow guidance.
- Sit on a chair, place both feet flat on the floor, and breathe slowly and steadily into your belly so it expands.
- Breathe in for a count of two – breathe out for a count of four.
- Keep your focus on the breath – on the way in and on the way out.
- Breathe this way for at least five minutes or until your breath becomes more calm and regular.
Check your five senses
- Say out loud what you are experiencing as you check in with each of your senses:
- Smell – what can you smell? Pick up something that you like and smell it deeply. A soothing smell is the fastest way to signal calm and safety to your nervous system.
- Touch – what can you touch around you? How does the chair you are sitting on or the clothes on your body feel? Hold a warm cup of tea in your hands or a cold bottle against your face. Notice the sensations.
- Sight – what can you see around you? Say out loud what you can see. Describe it in detail – the colours, the shapes, the objects.
- Taste – can you taste anything? Say out loud what the last thing you ate tasted like. Describe it in detail – was it sweet? Sour? Did you like it?
- Sound – what can you hear? Describe in detail what you can hear – is it traffic? Birds? Your own breathing? People talking?
Move your body
- Stamp your feet. Notice the sensation and sound as they hit the floor. Remind yourself you can run now.
- Move around. Take your time and notice the movement of each step and notice how your legs, arms, feet and hands feel while you move.
- Hold your shoulders right up to the ears and let them drop. Repeat as many times as it takes to release tension.
- Clap and rub your hands together. Hear the noise and feel the sensations in your hands and arms.