When Jennifer started her drive to Minnesota that rainy morning, she did not anticipate flashbacks.
“Aaaaaahhhh!” yells Jennifer.
“AAAAAHHHH!!! Wha’s happening, mom?” yell the kids from the back seat.
“We are hydroplaning! Hang on!” She replies. She is driving through hard rain, and her car has briefly lost contact with the road.
In the next few seconds, the car has been righted again. But, Jennifer is still in panic. Her heart races, her breathing seems to stop, and her grip tightens. In her thoughts, an image of the collision appears, along with the feeling of the car rolling, and the steel crunching. Her stomach roils until the tires are back on pavement, and she has control of the car.
Jennifer has just had a flashback. When her car veered, it triggered memories from a car accident she experienced 20 years ago, with her husband. In that accident, their small Honda Accord had been hit by a semi, causing the car to veer off the road and roll. Remarkably, both Jennifer and her spouse had walked away from the accident with nothing more that sore muscles, bad dreams, and a totaled car. But, soon afterwards, she began to experience panic at the wheel of her car.
“When will these feelings ever end?” She wonders, as she pulls over, calms down, and starts to cry.
Cathy worked in downtown Oklahoma City during the day of the Murrah Building bombing. She was a teacher in a school a few blocks away. Cathy still remembers the sound of the blast, the feelings of the walls vibrating, and the sounds of the screaming. She made sure her students were safe, told them to stay put, and then without thought, ran towards the explosion in order to help.
It was mayhem. People were crying and screaming, and everywhere people were covered in dust and rubble. Rescuers were running toward the blast in order to help. Sirens were sounding; loved ones were desperate to connect with their family members or friends.
To this day, the smell of the blast, the debris, the chemicals used in the fire that brings her back to that day in 1995, when she saw deaths of children and adults, and people who were terribly wounded. She held a cloth on a woman’s head to stop the bleeding until help arrived. She heard the wails of parents who learned their young children did not survive. Whenever she smells chemicals burning, the feeling of panic and fear come back immediately, as if it were still happening.
Both Cathy and Jennifer have something in common: flashbacks. Flashbacks are experienced when people relive or remember something very frightening. Flashbacks are often experienced with increased physical and psychological arousal. Physically, the person may sweat, their heart rate increases, and breathing may become shallow and rapid. Subjectively, it can be described as “panic,” or “terror.” Some people report feeling “frozen,” or like they are “flinching.” Flashbacks was a term once reserved for military personnel, but now we know they occur in many people for many types of traumas.
Causes of Flashbacks
These reactions occur because the individual’s body is cued from a previous trauma, triggering the body’s “fight or flight” response.
During the initial crisis, the survivor had to protect herself from danger, and focus on staying alive (or helping others stay alive). However, later, when cued by something reminiscent of the trauma, the feelings and reactions resurface as a flashback.
When that happens, survivor feels like the past is happening in the present. It can be frustrating, confusing, and even shameful for some people. They may flinch, scream, cry, or try to avoid it. Flashbacks may take the form of pictures, sounds, smells, body sensations, feelings, or numbness. These experiences can also happen in nightmares.To an outsider, it may seen that the survivor’s feelings and body sensations are not related to the reality of the present and many times seem to come from nowhere. The survivor may fear that she is going crazy. But she is not crazy. It is a common reaction to trauma.
Are Flashbacks Related to Other Disorders?
Flashbacks are commonly associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or reactions to situations in which the person has had to experience fear of having their life or other lives endangered. People with PTSD symptoms often avoid places or people that remind them of the trauma, and often feeling on guard, irritable, or startle easily.
However, because flashbacks are commonly misunderstood or shameful to some, some people may experience depression or substance abuse as they try to “get rid” of the symptoms on their own.
How Common are Flashbacks?
According to the National Center on PTSD, it is estimated that up to 10% of Americans will experience PTSD in their lifetime. That is a lot of people. Even more, it is likely that 60.7% of men and 51.2% of women reported at least one traumatic event in their lives, which can include combat exposure, childhood neglect, physical abuse/attack, sexual molestation/rape, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, shootings, motor vehicle accidents, and domestic terrorism. That is a lot of people who are at risk for these symptoms. Even clergy, therapists, and helping professions can develop vicarious trauma from just talking about these events with people. Up to 1/3 of active duty police officers and fire-fighters can also have PTSD symptoms. You are not alone.
What Can You Do if You Are Having Flashbacks?
You are not going crazy. This is your body’s way of coping with something really horrible. Of course you are struggling. Remind yourself that you are safe, and that you are loved.
Try to accept your symptoms rather than fight them.
Acknowledge that you are having a flashback. Remind yourself that the actual event is over and that you survived. You are here. You are ok. The more you try to tell yourself not to have a flashback, the worse it gets.Take slow, deep breaths by placing your hand on your stomach and taking deep breaths. You should see your hand move out with the inhalations, and watch it fall in with the exhalations. Count to four when you breathe in. Hold the air for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold it for a count of four. Repeat as much as you need to.
When we panic, our body begins to take short, shallow breaths, and the decrease in oxygen can make you feel worse. Deep breathing is important because it increases the oxygen in your system and helps you move out of anxious state faster.
Use grounding techniques.
One example is, “5-4-3-2-1.” Return to the present by using the five senses.
Look around you. Notice 5 items in the room.
Listen to the noises around you. Count 4 things you hear.
Focus on the smells around you. Count 3 things you smell
Notice what you feel: your coffee mug in your hand, the couch beneath you, the clothing on your body. Count 2 things you feel.
Eat or drink something you enjoy. Focus on the flavor. What is one thing you taste?
Don’t hide your symptoms from others.
Tell the people in your life who you love and trust. That way, you can gain the support and understanding from those around you.
Write, sing, or find ways to express yourself.
Having flashbacks is very difficult. It makes it difficult to leave a traumatic experience behind you. When you sing, write, draw, or talk about your trauma, your brain learns to rewire and reprogram itself. For many people it can be helpful in dealing with flashbacks or the trauma itself.
Be good to yourself.
Eat well, and limit alcohol. Exercise is very, very helpful in terms of decreasing your adrenaline and your body’s stress response. Honor your existence. You survived something very hard. It will take some time, but you will become stronger and wiser everyday that you continue to survive.
Seek Professional Help
As hard as it sounds, seeking professional help is good. It is important to find ways to manage your symptoms so they are not so difficult for you. Without treatment, many people find that their trauma symptoms worsen. Make sure the psychologist or therapist you see has experience treating trauma symptoms. At Hope Springs, our therapists are trained in treatments that are proven by research to help, such as Trauma-Focused CBT, EMDR, and Trauma-Focused work, which have all been found helpful for managing trauma.
May you be healthy, happy, and at peace.