My recent post about how a flashback is different from other involuntary memory led to several questions about what to do when you or your friend is in a flashback. If you have a friend who experiences flashbacks, you should talk with them ahead of time about what they want you to do to help them. For some people being touched while stuck in a past memory can be calming and soothing for others a touch during a flashback can be terrifying and still others may try to protect themselves if they are touched while deep in a flashback.
Not all of these choices will work for everyone. Try each of them to figure out which work best for you. If any of these suggestions are actually connected to a traumatic event, then DON’T USE THAT SUGGESTION! If your traumatic event had a strong scent of roses then don’t use the smell of flowers to help pull you out of your flashback, it would likely actually make the situation worse.
- Disprove the flashback: A flashback can be the flashback laid over reality, with both being experienced. Point out to yourself (saying it aloud helps even more) all the parts that don’t fit the flashback. If you are in an office but the flashback is of the desert – focus on the parts that indicate you are not in the desert.
- Use your senses: An intense taste, smell or feel can help pull you out of a flashback. Carry a sample of a strong-smelling perfume or cologne (favorite or least – just not connected to the flashback event). An intense flavor such as Altoids, sour candy (some Warheads come individually wrapped), or spicy hot sauce (camping stores have tiny bottles that you can carry with you). Squeeze an ice cube in your hand, keep squeezing even once it is too cold.
- Distract your mind: Do some math, or a crossword. Count backwards from 100 by 3. It has to be challenging enough to demand your attention but not so hard you can’t do it. Repeat tongue twisters. If you can get lost in a book or movie then do that.
- Drown it out with music: Play your favorite (or most despised) song. Put on headphones and crank it up. Sing along with gusto. You can also sing silly kid songs or holiday favorites (learn Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer).
- Talk to someone: Call a friend, call a teammate or someone else who will understand, or call a helpline. It helps to teach your friend what is helpful ahead of time or know which friend will provide what you need. Do you want to be distracted or heard? Which friend is best at that. Don’t call someone just because they want to help; call who can actually help. Don’t call your distraction friend when you want to be heard.
These are a few of the most common ways of dealing with flashbacks. If you are struggling with flashbacks, please know that it is possible to heal and reach a point where you no longer are experiencing them. Healing can be hard work but for the possibility of no longer having flashbacks… isn’t it worth it?
I am an EMDR trained therapist that specializes in helping people heal PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), CSA (Childhood Sexual Abuse), and trauma. If you live in the Austin Texas area, contact me to schedule a free consultation. If you don’t live near Austin, please contact a therapist with trauma treatment skills.