Understanding and dealing with Flashbacks

When we have undergone trauma or a traumatic childhood it is really important information to have, knowing when our nervous systems is being reactivated by a trigger which is launching us into an unconscious flashback.  The recovery writer John Lee has referred to such flashbacks as age regressions, periods of feeling suddenly very small, overwhelmed, flooded with feelings not easy to recognise, feeling hopeless, helpless or ashamed, feeling like you want to run and hide, experiencing an increased or accelerated heart rate, difficulty breathing, an activation of critical, shaming thoughts and comments from the inner critic or an internalised shaming voice.

Indeed a flash back also seems from what I have read recently to be accompanied by many of the same symptoms and affects as an anxiety or panic attack.   In his book on Complex PTSD Pete Walker devotes an entire chapter to Flashbacks and provides essential information on dealing with and understanding flashbacks as well as showing how the Inner Critic or Toxic Shame can work to keep us locked in a flashback spiral.

Knowing when something hurtful, damaging or scary from the past is being activated is essential information to have if we are besieged in our life by anxiety attacks, age regressions or flashbacks.  Indeed on the path of healing recognising and naming these attacks for what they are, sorting out and differentiating when we are being triggered and pulled back into past trauma or past time is very, very important for us.  Learning effective ways to self soothe and handle a flashback/panic attack while it is occurring as well as finding how to use them to gain essential information into the nature of our trauma is important for those of us on the path of emotional recovery.

An intense period of these kind of events began to besiege me just around the time my husband decided to separate from me in 2004.  I started to have times when it was difficult to breath, I had chest pain, difficulty standing up, a feeling of spinning or being spun, I felt periods of being dissociated or removed from reality.  What I now know that this decision of his to leave me evoked all the old feelings I went through when my father died and I was forced to travel overseas in the absence of other support 20 years earlier.

At that time shortly following my father’s death  I was left by my current partner, being informed during a 4 am phone call he didn’t want to support in my grief, no longer loved me and had met someone else. I could not turn to my mother or family for comfort.  I was told I needed to stick with my plan to travel overseas (my then partner had travelled ahead and I was to meet him), which I did drinking through the years that followed and undergoing more repetitions of the trauma/abandonment theme over the next 10 years.

I now know that this particular trauma due to be unresolved has replayed three more times in subsequent years after 2004 (20 years later).  The name given to this kind of flashback repeat that results in acting out again the old pattern is called the repetition compulsion.  (Trauma expert Van Der Kolk has shown how traumatic events when not understood and resolved repeated with disastrous consequences in the life of a Vietnam vet who replayed the trauma of watching a friend brutally killed on the same date by undertaking a fake robbery on a grocery store where the trauma was re-enacted. )

I have been grateful in the past week to have begun to read Pete Walker’s book on Complex PTSD about which I have composed a number of blogs to post here.  I feel that his writing and understanding of flashbacks and the role they play in Complex PTSD and recovery is essential information from those of us besieged in this way.  The more information we have, the better we can learn to identify the true source of our distress as well as the tools we can use to comfort ourselves through flashbacks, age regressions and panic attacks.

The information below comes from the chapter Managing Emotional Flashbacks in Pete Walkers book :  Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving.

13 Steps for Managing Emotional Flashbacks

  1.  Say to yourself “I am having a flashback”. Flashbacks take you into a timeless part of the psyche that feels as helpless, hopeless and surrounded in danger as you were in childhood (or during an accident).  The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are past memories that cannot hurt you any more.
  2. Remind yourself “I feel afraid but I am not in danger”  “I am safe now, here in the present.”  Remember you are now in the safety of the present far from the danger of the past.
  3. Own your right/need to have boundaries.  Remind yourself that you do not have to allow anyone to mistreat you, you are free to leave dangerous (abusive) situations and protest unfair behaviour.
  4. Speak reassuringly to your Inner Child.  The child needs to know that you love him/her unconditionally – that s/he can come to you for comfort and protection with s/he feels lost and scared
  5. Deconstruct eternity thinking.  In childhood (0r during a serious accident) fear and abandonment feel endless – a safer future was unimaginable.  Remember this flashback will pass as it always has before.
  6. Remind yourself that you are in an adult body  with allies, skills and resources to protect you that you never had as a child (feeling small and fragile is a sign of a flashback.)
  7. Ease back into your body.  Fear launches you into “heady” worrying, or numbing and spacing out.  (a) Gently ask your body to relax : feel each of your major muscle groups and softly encourage them to relax.  (Tightened muscles send false danger signals to your brain.)  (b)  Breathe deeply and slowly. (Holding your breath signals danger)  (c) Slow Down : rushing presses your brain’s flight response button.  (d) Find a safe place to unwind and soothe yourself : wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or a stuffed animal, lie down on your bed or in a closet or in a bath, take a nap.  (e) Feel the fear in your body without reacting to it.  Fear is just an energy in your body.  It cannot hurt you if you do not run from it.
  8. Resist the Inner Critic’s Drasticizing and Catastrophising  (a)  Use thought stopping to halt the Critic’s endless exaggerations of danger, and its constant planning to control the uncontrollable.  Refuse to shame, hate or abandon yourself.  Chanel the anger of self attack into saying “NO” to your critic’s unfair self criticism.  (b) Use Thought substitution and thought correction to replace negative thinking with a memorised list of your qualities and accomplishments.
  9. Allow yourself to grieve.  Flashbacks are opportunities to release old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt and abandonment.  Validate and soothe your child’s past experience of helplessness and hopelessness.  Healthy grieving can turn your tears into self compassion and your anger into self protection.
  10. Cultivate safe relationships and seek support.  Take time alone when you need it but don’t let shame isolate you.  Feeling shame doesn’t mean you are shameful.  Educate your intimates about flashbacks and ask them to help you talk and feel your way through them
  11. Learn to identify the types of triggers that lead to flashbacks.  Avoid unsafe people, places and activities and triggering mental processes.  Practise preventative
  12. Figure out what you are flashing back to.  Flashbacks are opportunities to discover, validate and heal your wounds from past abuse and abandonment.  They also point to your still unmet developmental needs and can provide you with motivation to get them met.
  13. Be patient with a slow recovery process. It takes time in the present to become de-adrenalized, and considerable time in the future to gradually decrease the intensity, duration and frequency of flashbacks.  Real recovery is a gradual progressive process (often two steps forward, one step back) not an attained salvation fantasy.  Don’t beat yourself up for having a flashback.

I would add that as far is no 12 is concerned, John Lee’s excellent book : Growing Yourself Back Up provides a comprehensive guide for figuring out what from the past has triggered a present age regression or flashback and working your way through it.  You could also enlist the support of a competent therapist or body worker who can help to put you back in touch with feelings buried or repressed in the body.

Hard as it may seem more is to be achieved by actually facing up to the complex feelings triggered during flashbacks, since our unconscious history is always seeking ways to make itself known to us in order to be validated and understood.  This is admittedly a very different pathway to take than seeking to numb or blunt the pain with medications alone.

Part of learning to recognise triggers and flashbacks too involves self care.  Removing ourselves, focusing on life enhancing experiences and relationships that bring us joy, finding places we can go to talk about the experience, understanding the we do not need to add to our stress or distress by shaming ourselves further.

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