Meandering Michele’s Mind: 18 Tips For Coping With A Flashback

Posted by Michele Rosenthal

Thursday, March 12th, 2009 • Uncategorized •

If you’ve read my post25 Things About My PTSDyou know that like many PTSDers one of my prevalent PTSD symptoms was flashbacks. And if you read the post you know that the flashback I most often got caught in was the moment I felt myself leave my body.

The truth is, in the original experience of that moment during my trauma, I didn’t want to come back. I wanted to keep going into the tunnel and abandon my body forever. Later, then, it was a strange flashback in which to be stuck. Non-violent and peaceful, the memory stole over me at odd moments without a definitive trigger and the next thing I knew, I was back in that place, hovering ½ way between my physical body and a black tunnel, reliving the panic and fear of the moments prior to my escape, and then lingering in the peace of that ultimate disconnection from the world around me. Suspended there, my mind shut down and I sank into the deep, despondent wish that I could get back to the tunnel and leave behind the rest of the PTSD hell in which I lived.

Not easy, as we all know, to cope and carry on when intense moments of the past overwhelm us. I’ve been thinking, lately, how much we all struggle to control the flashback experience – or not control it. Since my PTSD experience was undiagnosed for 25 years, I just accepted that this memory would bowl me over weekly, would, itself, hover over me on a daily basis and that was just the way things would be. I didn’t develop strategies or coping mechanisms for it. I let it wash over me, felt myself float away, and knew at some point I’d come back. It was easy to live like this since the flashback wasn’t violent in nature.

But for many survivors flashbacks are a big issue that becomes physiological and destructive in its experience. We need a ‘To Do’ list for interrupting the flow; a list of strategies to reconnect us to the present moment.

This week, I’ve been on the task. I’ve polled some PTSD friends. Today, I give you a collective list of what ten PTSDers do to stop a flashback in its tracks:

1. Count 1 – 10 slowly; repeat until the flashback ends.

2. Practice breathing techniques to reconnect the body to the mind.
3. Focus on one of the five senses, i.e. slowly look at what’s around you and notice the details; take a deep breath and smell the air; chew a piece of gum and taste the fresh flavor; put your hands together and feel the skin; listen to the sound of traffic.
4. Let the flashback flow and view it as you would a movie, as if you are removed from it and it is appearing on a screen. You are in the present moment; the flashback is a separate event.

5. Snap an elastic band around your wrist.

6. Hold onto an ice cube.
7. Put a squeeze of toothpaste into your mouth (very unique texture/taste/smell).
8. Take a swig of vanilla extract.
9. Stomp your feet.
10. Say the alphabet backwards.

11. Journal. “Put it in a box” and put the box away.

12. Smelling peppermint oil (helps with head-aches, nausea, and jolts the senses).
13. Reach out. Talk with someone.
14. Surround yourself with things that help ground you (clocks, calendars, music).
15. Develop a channel for safe venting if/when necessary. In the words of one survivor: “I used to take old jars from the fridge and smash them against a brick wall several blocks from my home, slamming a door, or screaming at the top of my lungs when no-one could hear me.”
16. Stretching, Yoga, biking, running, walking, or working out.
17. Counting without limit – begin counting when it starts and don’t stop until the memory recedes.
18. For this last tip, I’m going to post the words of a vet, but any civilian can use the technique, too, by substituting his/her triggering sound: “The sound of a huey chopper would set off a flashback, so the therapist had me install a huey sound file on my computer and listen to it over and over. My anxiety still goes high at the sound but now no flashbacks.”

What tips, tricks and strategies do you use? Add to this community resource by leaving a comment.

(Photo: Ewan-M)

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8 Responses to “Meandering Michele’s Mind: 18 Tips For Coping With A Flashback”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve found that a useful thing is to ‘lock’ yourself into the five senses. Pay attention to the surroundings in detail.

    Whilst doing this let the memories happen – as if they were a rerun you’ve seen many times before which is a bit dull.

    Sometimes I know that means that I become anxious but it passes.

    Most of all is to know that the memories that you are experiencing are not the here and now but just memories.

  2. @Anonymous – Great advice: “Most of all is to know that the memories that you are experiencing are not the here and now but just memories.”

    That’s really the crux of all PTSD healing, isn’t it? To remember the past is behind us and we can move away from it.

  3. Bee says:

    A good place to scream where no one can hear you is in your car – especially at night.

    I’m really good at math, so one thing I like to do to help me cope with a flashback is to do multi-step math problems in my head and keep adding more and more steps to them until the flashback is gone or I am fully grounded again.

  4. 1) Stregthen the mind muscle through meditative exercises so you can stay grounded in the present moment when a flashback threatens to unmoor you.
    2) Hot dead sea salt bath: visualize negative memory flowing out and down the drain at the end.
    3) Smudge with smudge stick
    4) Clear with smoky quartz crystal
    5) Completely abreact memory
    6) Try EFT – amazing article here: http://www.eftuniverse.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4351:glenda-ritual-abuse-qim-too-damaged-to-healq&catid=29:trauma-and-ptsd763&Itemid=3128

  5. Harmeet says:

    I kick my shoes off and put my bare feet on whatever surface is beneath them. I describe the sensations I’m feeling beneath my feet to myself silently if I have to, and outloud when I can.

  6. Michele says:

    I’ve been taking walks along local rivers or go to the ocean. Take pictures along the way. When i take the pictures, I focus on the sounds of the water, feel the breeze on my face, smell the greenery, look at the way the light sparkles on the water. While there in that safe place, I try to flashback and then pull myself back out in this safe place.

    Then, when when I get a flashback, I look at the pictures and put myself back in that moment.

  7. Sydney says:

    I count doubles. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…eventually I run out of doubles I have memorized – I’m really bad at math – so I have to start multiplying in my head if I want to keep going. That ties me to the world.

    I got the idea from a friend who counts triples. 3, 9, 27, 81…that didn’t work for me because I could never get past 81 :blush:

  8. Isaiah says:

    Normally I listen to music loudly with headphones, eat a bowl of frozen blueberries with my hands, or press my back against something.

    I also find that reciting things helps. Examples that I use would be reciting the periodic table, counting 1,2,3,1,2,3… many times, and reciting the books of the Bible (not so much for religious reasons, but because I learned them as a child).

    If at all possible I try to find somewhere dark and quiet.

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