Coping with Flashbacks: Techniques for Handling the Memories
Updated May 8, 2018
by Sean Bennick
Your options for coping with flashbacks obviously depends on your current situation. I’ll discuss that, as well as your three major options for coping with the flashbacks and then offer some helpful tips for handling the different types of flashbacks later in the article. First, I thought it would be helpful to define what a flashback actually is and what I mean by coping with flashbacks.
A more in-depth description is available in my article A Brief Introduction to Flashbacks, but briefly put a flashback is a sudden and disturbing intrusive memory of some sort. What makes this tricky is that our memory is all-encompassing, so a memory can be a thought, a vision, a sound, smell, or feeling. Any of your senses can be impacted, which means if you have PTSD a flashback may be triggered by something you see, smell, taste, touch, or just remember; and this may bring a thought, or what I experience with my own PTSD as an overlapping vision, smell, sound, or feeling of the trauma. With my own flashbacks even my balance can be impacted.
Coping with flashbacks simply means managing them in the most appropriate way at the time, and in my experience, there are three different ways you can “manage” the flashback. At the first sign of an oncoming flashback, you need to quickly determine which option you are choosing based on the factors you are dealing with.
Coping by not coping. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and you are triggered into the Fight or Flight state. Or more appropriately as I call it, the Fight, Flight, or Freeze state, and that’s okay. When that happens and you can’tcope, you have to be able to forgive yourself. This may happen a lot early in your treatment or during anniversary times.
Believe it or not, I once knocked down an older woman at a Barnes and Noble when a man said a phrase that sent me into a flashback tailspin. I bolted from the bookstore and was so involved in the flashback that I didn’t even see the woman as I rushed out the door of the store. Security ran after me thinking I had shoplifted something. I was cowering in my car in the parking lot. The Bellevue police were called and mid flashback I had to try and explain what was happening.
Luckily I was able to stammer my way through what had happened and explain what I was dealing with. I said it wasn’t safe for me to drive until the flashback had subsided, so the officers let me be. It was strongly suggested that I not go into that particular Barnes and Noble again however.
I have gone back to that store since because I did nothing wrong.
The woman wasn’t hurt, she didn’t fall down completely she was only bumped against the wall, and it was an accident caused by my mental health issue. If I had bumped her over because I was having low blood sugar or a heart attack, they wouldn’t have asked me to stay away. This is an example of the stigma faced by those of us with mental health issues.
Look at Your Situation Before Making Your Decision
Don’t worry, all of these items can be reviewed quickly and as someone with PTSD, you likely do this without knowing as part of your symptoms. If you are thinking hyper vigilance, then you got it. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but at this particular moment, you can make use of it. Look around quickly and take everything in.
Safety: Are you in a safe place and are you feeling safe? While this may seem like an easy question, the answers may not be that simple when you think about it. Your safety is the most important factor to consider during every flashback and it is actually impacted by all of the other factors I’ve listed.
Experience: How much experience do you have dealing with your flashbacks? If you’re fairly new to your diagnosis, then you haven’t “leveled up” just yet. So clamping down might be a little more difficult, you may need to take that into account and look for an exit.
Location: This goes much deeper that “where are you?” Is this a comfortable place for you? Have you been here before? Do you know where the exits are? When you are in a flashback, nothing is worse than walking out a Fire Exit and setting off the Fire Alarm, trust me.
Assistance: Is anyone with you? This is a direct safety net here. If the flashback is big, mind-shattering big, do you have support?
Techniques For Coping With Flashbacks
Well, you’ve looked at the situation and taken your safety into account, now it’s time to take on the beast. The actual techniques used for each of these options are the same, but how you combine these techniques and the intensity with which you use them will vary to bring about each of the three. To remember your options at this point, just think ACE – Accept, Control, or Escape.
Accept The Flashback
The first option you have is to Accept the flashback at full intensity, and everything that comes with it. At first glance, this looks like a horrible choice, but one of the reasons you have flashbacks in the first place is to help your mind process the information contained in the flashback. That traumatic information was buried there because it was too much to deal with at the time of the trauma. The problem with that is that our emotional selves need some form of closure, so our mind will seek that when things remind us of the traumatic incident.
Now, tare times that this is the best option because the information is going to come forward at some time anyway. So if the time and place are right, prepare yourself and try to control the flashback only enough to keep yourself safe.
How do you know if the time and place are right? Well, there are several factors that may help indicate when it is safe enough to Accept a flashback at full force. The first of these is a safe environment, by safe I mean comfortable and comforting. This may be your bedroom, living room, or even your therapist’s office. The second is the existence of a support person or someone you can talk to afterward if you need to. This could be a significant other, close friend or therapist.
When I choose to Accept the flashback, I’ve learned that the silent tips below such as the Wall Spotting and Managed Tapping are the most effective tools to help me manage things. I have also found that limiting the times I Accept a flashback at full force can significantly improve how I deal with the more devastating memories.
Control The Flashback
The second option for coping with flashbacks is to Control the flashback, or rather to make an attempt to diminish the effects of the flashback. In order to Control the flashback, you need to increase the effort you put into the coping techniques you have (or those listed at the bottom of this article). I find it useful to also continue to remind myself that I am safe and that I cannot be hurt.
Controlling and Escaping flashbacks work by interrupting the thought processes involved in the flashback. Since flashbacks are basically electrical impulses within the brain, I look at this as short-circuiting the flashback process. When you have a song you don’t particularly like stuck in your head, the only way to get rid of it is to hear a song you like and replace the thought that is keeping that song in your head. Short-circuiting a flashback is the same thing you are attempting to replace one thought process with another.
Controlling is not the full replacement of a flashback but a redirection of the flashback onto a different and safer circuit. To do this, you will be using your coping tools to interrupt the thought process. You may need to interrupt the flashback several times to Control the impact, and it may take several efforts to cause a single interruption. Mixing your coping methods around and using them in combination are ways of intensifying the attempt at interruption.
If your environment is familiar and you can feel safe, or if you are with someone who can give you a measure of safety, then Controlling the flashback may be the best option for coping with flashbacks.
Escape The Flashback
The final option for coping with flashbacks is the Escape of the flashback. Again, remember that this may not always be possible, but never give up your attempts. Mix up your coping methods and combine them, try the more intense methods and try new methods. Escape is both tiring and difficult for me, but it can be done.
One thing that you need to be aware of is that Escape is not permanent. By Escaping the flashback, you are simply putting it off until it is safe to process the information. You won’t get to select when that reprocessing happens either. Once you Escape, get yourself to a safer place and calm yourself down.
Another warning, you may pay for an Escape with a rebound of sorts. You may experience an increase in physical or mental exhaustion or an increase in your anxiety symptoms. I often experience mental exhaustion and increased anxiety for several hours or even up to a day after I Escape a flashback.
Whether you simply make mental notes or write down every detail about the flashback and what you did to cope, this is an important part of the process. The more information you have about your flashbacks, the better.
- What triggered the flashback?
- What senses did the flashback involve and to what intensity?
- What was the flashback content?
- What was your goal? (Accept, Control or Escape)
- Did you accomplish your goal?
- What coping techniques did you use?
- Which of these techniques helped, which didn’t?
Having these notes can help create a better plan for flashback management. They can also help your therapist in helping you.
Tips For Coping With Flashbacks
Nearly anything you can do to help you cope with your flashbacks is a good thing. I say nearly everything because anything that does harm to yourself or another person is simply inexcusable in my opinion. I feel I have a right to say this because like many out there with PTSD, I have resorted to self-injury in an attempt to deal with some of the memory I recovered. Not only was self-injury ineffective, it put me in a very dangerous position.
Resorting to causing yourself pain to cover other pain simply amplifies your agony. You may temporarily feel what you believe to be relief but once things return to normal and the flashback is gone, there is additional pain to deal with and at times, serious injury as well. I view Alcohol and Drugs the same way (with the exception of drugs prescribed by my own doctor or therapist). They may not do visible harm like cutting yourself, but the damage is done and the problems are compounded.
Having said that, remember that if something works to help you cope and it is not harmful, then use it as often as you can. If this means that you need to hum the theme from Gilligan’s Island over and over in public (which was surprisingly effective because I was attempting to recall the words as I was humming), then do so.
Keep in mind that my explanations about why the techniques below work for me are based on my own understanding and may not be accurate. I can tell you that each of the ideas I suggest have worked for me and helped me cope with my own flashbacks for the past 20 years oe are tips that others have passed on to me.
Coping With Flashbacks When You Are Alone
One of the easiest ways to cope or manage a flashback is by distraction. Try to remember something challenging such as the lyrics to a particular song, or a favorite poem. This can help interrupt the flashback by redirecting the activity in your brain.
For some reason, memory games work well when I am having flashbacks that involved my hearing and balance.
Some of the more effective memory games I have used are:
- Humming songs or remembering the lyrics to songs
- Naming facts I learned in school
This has been my most important tool in dealing with physically oriented flashbacks. The technique was actually taught to me by a Viet Nam Veteran who said he used it for every single flashback, adding “usually it helps, but sometimes it can’t.” I have found it to be effective to some degree almost every time I have tried it.
The idea is simple, take a fairly large ice cube and hold it tight in one of your hands throughout the flashback. The cold feeling keeps that part of you grounded to some degree and the physical sensation gives you something solid to focus on besides the memory you are reliving. It is important to hold the ice cube fairly tight and in the same hand for the duration of the flashback. I experimented with switching hands and holding it lightly and the technique lost much of its effectiveness.
This technique involves selecting 4 or 5 brightly colored items in the room that are easily within your field of vision and moving your focus between them. Make sure to vary the order and allow yourself to lock onto the items briefly before shifting to the next item. Keep this up throughout the flashback and continue for a short time afterwards.
Following the same pattern can actually cause you to become more involved in the flashback because your mind becomes used to the pattern and builds on it. By varying the pattern, you disrupt the thought processes involved in the flashback.
I suggest continuing the eye movements for a while after the flashback ends to allow yourself to get more focused on the present since I use this technique mostly for flashbacks with a visual element.
Cold Water on Your Face
This one is simple and can help with any type of flashback. This idea is one of the first ones any of us find that helps. Remember that it can continue to help. Try and use water cold enough to give yourself a good shock. There is a bit more evidence on why this works, it is called the “Mammalian Diving Reflex” or simply the “Diving Reflex” and relies on the fact that our bodies want to survive.
Sudden immersion in very cold water (below 70 degrees) triggers the Diving Reflex. The body reacts by lowering the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, and shutting down circulation to all but the body’s core. The result is a lowered metabolism that conserves energy, which helps cold water survival. This is also why near-drowning victims in cold water have a much higher survival rate.
The effect on a flashback is fairly drastic. In short, the brain is shocked and interrupts the flashback to survive what may be a life-threatening immersion in freezing water. For this reason, make sure you use the coldest water available and use a good amount of it.
Escaping in Humor or Music
The easiest way that exists. Put on a funny movie or TV show, even if you’ve seen it before, and laugh. Or turn on your favorite music and sing along. If you’re looking for something funny to watch, I have a few favorites. Try Black Books, Father Ted, or The IT Crowd, they all make me laugh.
Coping With Flashbacks When A Friend Is Available
Depending on your comfort level with the person, this can involve anything from a light hand on your shoulder to a firm hug. The goal of this is to reassure you that you are present, so talking may be helpful. Your friend may say things like, “you’re safe,” or, “I’m right here.”
It’s important that you tell your friend if anything they did made you more uncomfortable, the last thing anyone who loves you wants to do is make things harder for you.
This is a technique I came up with while assisting a friend with a panic attack. I call this Counting for lack of a better term. The idea, like most of the techniques above, is to confuse the mind and disrupt the thought processes. To do this, remember that random is good.
Basically, your friend would make you repeat whatever they are saying and would start by following a predictable pattern. Throwing in random words breaks the pattern up and causes a brief disruption in the flashback. This can be very powerful against the more intense flashbacks and I tend to use it only when I am in great need.
The sample below is meant to illustrate both why I call it counting and how it can work.
I am unsure why this has been effective, but I do know it will not work alone. If you are selecting the order, than the order is not random, there are no surprises. The surprises catch us off guard and our reaction of “One, Two, Three, Eight?” is often enough to lessen the impact of fairly intense flashbacks.
Reader Tips for Coping With Flashbacks
Fizz Buzz Counting
Provided by: The Sandy Sailor
I use an “advanced counting” technique to recapture my focus… it is derived from an old group game we used to play – we called it “Fizz – Buzz”. Instead of simply counting sequentially, any time a number contains the digit 7 or is a multiple of 7, the word “Buzz” is used; when a number contains the digit 5 or a multiple of 5, the word “Fizz” is used. This is pretty easy up into the early 100s… when much more focus and concentration are required!!
…It can be done without a friend. If you mess up, you’re supposed to compliment yourself! Pick any compliment, but pick a compliment. Then start again.
Memory Game Adaptation
Provided by: Nowhere Man
I do not really have a support person, so most of my attempts at coping are done solo; also, because of my particular incidents, holding an ice cube in my hand only intensifies the memories linked with hypothermic shock. In a similar matter to recalling facts… I will often attempt to count in prime numbers or perfect squares… or attempt taking roots of non-perfect squares without a calculator… if I have pencil and paper, I will try to design something This strategy, rather than invoking the memory to interrupt another memory, lets me focus on processing and problem solving to distract the mind from the intrusive memory; though, doing this sometimes causes passersby to question my sanity, especially if I happen to be counting in squares aloud.
Provided by: Nada Najjar
My friend was experiencing recurring flashbacks and we tried some of the techniques mentioned, which we adjusted into a few other things. I’m really grateful for your website and for sharing these techniques. We tried a couple of different things. Not sure if useful to you, but here goes:The first was that I held up a different number of fingers, I did three of four in a row, and he would have to wait until the end and then call the whole pattern out (eg. 10, 6, 2,5), that was the first thing we did, and that got his attention back. I also tried to make up funny sentences letter by letter using my hands for each letter. That was quite a challenge but did require a lot of concentration. The other was to give them a mathematical equation (if they’re into math I guess), we started out simple – what’s 3 multiplied by 242, minus 7. We then got into scenarios -if I catch a train from here to x, at xx kilometers and I go from y to z at x kilometers, who will get there first. Funnily then he began to ask me questions, so I had to reach for a calculator! It really helped.
Texture and Touch
Provided by: Chloe
When I am alone, texture can be extremely helpful. Feeling the things around me before I start a flashback helps to ground me. As silly as it sounds, my friend bought me a few children’s books a few years ago that have the different textures on different animals and things like that, and those are helpful. Like others have said, math and science problems are also good distractions.
Question and Answer
Provided by: Chloe
When a friend is around, it is helpful for them to ask me questions that involve recall. I have a friend ask me specific plot questions about a movie I have seen, or a book I have read, or a TV show I recently watched. Once I have passed “the point of no return” and am experiencing the flashback, the only thing iIhave found to work is to have someone talk to me. I have a good friend that tells me random stories and describes random things. It is not important what she talks about, and most of the flashback I can’t hear her. Eventually, I will begin to hear her talking, and I can kind of grasp onto that in the midst of my flashback to pull myself out of it and back to reality. Hope this helps.
New Techniques for Coping With Flashbacks Are Always Welcome
If you have any additional techniques, please send them in and we’ll post them for others to use. Just email our Content Director and we’ll add your tip to the list of techniques.