Trauma, PTSD and Complex PTSD (CPTSD) all have something in common. All of them share trauma flashbacks as a major symptom.
But if you have never experience trauma, you might wonder
“What Is A Flashback And How Does It Feel?”
A flashback is an intrusive thought, image, sensation, or memory. It’s common that during a flashback, a trauma survivor will feel like they are re-living the traumatic experience once more.
But more often, it’s only part of the experience that returns. For example, when my client Janice experiences a flashback, she feels “taken over by “emotional numbness” and a feeling of “physical cold”. “It’s like someone flipped a switch and I go from feeling happy and normal to feeling like a zombie. My brain goes dead and I get pulled back into how I felt in that house. I felt like a lifeless, bored trapped animal just brain dead “.
Sometimes trauma patients have what I call “emotional flashbacks”. These are feelings that come “out of the blue”, but are also repetitive in some way.
Please note, this blog post contains some detailed description of trauma flashback and the conditions that produced them.
How Long Do Trauma Flashbacks Last?
The length of trauma flashbacks varies. I have worked with clients whose flashbacks lasted only a few seconds or minutes. But I’ve also had clients tell me that they had emotional flashbacks that lasted days.
For example, recently a man that I work with described a flashback in the following way. “I realized that before I see you for our therapy appointments, I feel nervous for a few days leading up to it. Suddenly I made a connection. The feeling felt very familiar to me. Even though I know that you are a calm and gentle guy, There is part of me that is ready for you to snap and go wild on me. That was exactly how I felt when it was time for me when I was a kid. I would get antsier and antsier as it came time to make the switch and go to my father’s place. He could be in any state of mind at all. I would get ramped up and it would last for days. Now the same thing is happening with you.”
Do Trauma Survivors Know They Are Having A Trauma Flashback?
Some of the trauma patients I have seen in psychotherapy are very aware they are having a flashback. For example, during a recent neurofeedback brain training session, I gently placed an EEG sensor on the back of Ellen’s head. She began to perspire. My eye caught her hand shaking slightly in her lap, and I asked her about it.
“You just brought something back when you touched the back of my head. That was where my mother used to whack me when I was little. I just felt it all. I remembered how I would try really hard to keep my hand still, because if I tried to protect myself she would hit me harder”.
The memory, the feeling and the impulses all sprang up in Ellen’s mind, but she also knew what was happening.
Others didn’t recognize it at all in the moment.
How To Deal With Trauma Flashbacks?
If you experience traumatic flashbacks, one of the most important things you can do to help yourself with trauma flashbacks is to get into therapy with a trauma specialist. When we experience something that is terrifying or life threatening, our brains and nervous systems become overwhelmed.
Why do flashbacks occur? In a sense, many trauma symptoms occur because our brain has been overwhelmed and unable to process the event. It’s like a computer that hangs or freezes when it’s processor is overworked.
A trauma therapist will have been trained in specialized trauma treatment techniques that will help you resolve and process the memories that are stuck in your nervous system. He or she will be able to teach you methods to help calm yourself and stay grounded in the present during a flashback.
Once you have developed that skill, a trauma therapist will help to guide you through processing and resolving the old memories. For many clients, that’s when the real recovery starts.
If you are dealing with flashbacks, here are some ideas to help you cope:
- Remind yourself that what you are experiencing will pass in a bit
- Do something to get yourself more calm. (some techniques my clients use are breathing, moving their bodies, consciously engaging their senses, orienting techniques etc.
- Give yourself time to bounce back. Remember it’s a good idea to nurture yourself and take care of yourself afterwards.
In therapy, your therapist can, and should, teach you skills to help you develop nervous system regulation skills. Once you have gotten good at them, a qualified trauma therapist will also be able to guide you through trauma processing and resolution.
Would you like to learn more about trauma treatment I offer? If so, follow the link and read more!