Trauma has such a wide variety of symptoms and presents differently for each person. We could spend hours discussing the different manifestations of trauma. Still, one of the most prevalent and challenging to cope with are flashbacks. When envisioning flashbacks, you might picture the combat-wounded veteran suffering from the violent memory of war. While that certainly does occur, flashbacks also take on many different characteristics. You may appear in a totally normal headspace to the outside world, carrying on with life as usual. However, the reality is that you’re stuck in the visual or emotional torment of a past experience that leaves you feeling exhausted and vulnerable.

What does a flashback look like?

Certainly, flashbacks can be violent and debilitating. However, they can also have no external indicators of what is going on at all. You may suffer from a flashback every now and again or multiple episodes a day. I’ve witnessed all of the above in sessions with clients attempting to manage and process their traumas. I’ve seen the veteran relive combat, the police officer shut down when discussing a call gone wrong, and a victim of sexual assault collapse from the memory of their experience. These are just a few examples, but the point is they were so, so different, yet they were all some type of flashback.

3 Types of Flashbacks

Visual flashbacks are likely what you’re thinking of when picturing what a definition of a flashback. These result from a trigger and dominate the mind with graphic images of a past experience or trauma. They bring the visual past into the here and now. For example, they may introduce an involuntary memory to be relived as if it were happening at the moment.

While also a result of a trigger, Somatic flashbacks manifest with more physical qualities than visual memories. These can cause pain or discomfort that is directly related to a past trauma. For example, a person who has been choked may experience pain and tightness in their throat or shortness of breath after exposure to a trigger.

Emotional flashbacks are a fairly new discovery and are currently under more investigation. What we now know about these types of flashbacks is that they occur after a trigger and invoke an emotional response. The most significant defining characteristic of an emotional flashback is experiencing the same emotions in the present that was felt during the trauma in the past. More information about emotional flashbacks and specific coping skills can be found here.

Methods to Cope with Flashbacks

5-4-3-2-1 Exercise
This exercise is called a grounding technique. It works to bring your mind into the present and out of the past by activating and orienting your 5 senses. Begin by pausing to take a few deep breaths. Then, the exercise moves on to identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you smell, and one thing you can taste or one emotion you can feel.

A good visual example of this technique can be found here.

Belly Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing)
A form of deep breathing using the lower lungs and diaphragm is called belly breathing. This technique is one of my favorites because not only is it using a different, deeper breathing technique, but it also requires concentration and practice. The idea is to breathe in a way that your stomach rises more than your chest during each breath.

A good instructional video to walk you through belly breathing is located here.

Separating past from the present
Yes, when you’re not in the moment, this tool sounds simplistic and obvious. However, when you are in the midst of a flashback, it’s not so black and white. Everything may appear as one large shade of gray. Taking the time and making the conscious effort to think through what was in the past and what is in front of you in the present can help in grounding yourself. This can lead to minimizing the time you spend in the events of the past, allowing for a better experience in the present.

Talking aloud is something I usually recommend. Using your voice to walk yourself through the events or objects around you. For example, “I didn’t live in this house when the assault occurred. I’m in a new place, I survived, that event cannot hurt me anymore.” Another example, “The explosion occurred in Afghanistan in the desert. I’m in America, in the state of Ohio, in my house with my dog and I’m wearing my pajamas. I’m not wearing my uniform and I’m not in a desert.” These are just a few examples that I’ve come across working with clients struggling with PTSD flashbacks.

Treatments that can help with flashbacks– EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is an evidence-based treatment used by organizations and practitioners across the world. The treatment involves targeting past traumas that are invading into your day-to-day by utilizing bilateral stimulation, such as rapid eye movements. The science about EMDR is solid and researched extensively and

Treatments that can help with flashbacks– CPT

CPT is another evidence-based treatment focused on targeting “stuck points” surrounding past traumas and pulls heavily from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. This treatment is about structure and accountability and provides the tools needed to continue the work as needed after therapy is completed. More information about CPT can be located here.

These are just two of the multiple options available to assist in combating traumatic flashbacks. We would love to take some time to speak with you about the options available and how to begin your healing journey.