Remembering the past is important. It defines who we are. But sometimes the process of storing an experience as a memory can go awry.
These memory disturbances can present later in life where the event is relived in the form of a flashback.
Flashbacks are a psychological phenomenon. They are sudden, involuntary and vivid. In many cases these powerful memories of past experiences are closely linked with traumatic events, but they can also present as a positive memory where an event is fantasised or romanticised.
If you are experiencing a flashback, it's important to tell yourself that it's not an actual event and that your reaction is a common response.
Try to keep your eyes open and look around, remind yourself that the feelings and sensations you are experiencing are from the past and that the worst is over and you survived.
Over time it is possible to develop strategies to manage or minimise these flashbacks. The list below offers some common techniques that may work for you.
When we're scared our breathing can become erratic, resulting in our body panicking from lack of oxygen. This can cause feelings of fear, pounding in the head, tightness, sweating, feeling faint, shakiness and dizziness.
Calm breathing – also known as diaphragmatic breathing – can help you regain control and slow your breathing down when you feel stressed or anxious. The purpose is not to avoid anxiety, but to help you 'ride out' the feelings.
This technique helps to 'ground' or immediately connect you with the present.
Keep your eyes open so you can see and focus on what is around you right now. Speak out loud and describe what you are seeing and doing. For example, 'I'm sitting on a brown chair, and the fabric is really soft. It's velvet. The carpet is beige and there is a yellow couch in the corner.'
Some grounding strategies include:
When you are stressed or anxious your body may respond by tightening its muscles. The progressive muscle relaxation technique works in the reverse and teaches you how to relax your muscles.
All you need to do is find a quiet, comfortable space and focus on slow, regular breathing for a couple of minutes. Once you are settled, systematically move around your body tightening different muscle groups – such as your neck and shoulders – for ten seconds, then release them. Try to synchronise the muscle tightening and relaxation with your breathing.
This technique can help lower your overall stress levels and is a way to relax when feeling anxious.
Boundaries help you feel protected from the outside world. During a flashback you may lose the sense of where you leave off and the world begins, as if you don't have skin. Try wrapping yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or stuffed animal, go to bed, or sit in a closed space.
Flashbacks can drain your energy, so it helps to take time to find ways to unwind and destress.
There's a proven relationship between stress and mental illness. It can worsen an episode, or even result in symptoms returning. Try to find a balanced lifestyle and identify coping strategies that will help you with the ongoing management of stress.
You may prefer to be alone during a flashback. But if you can, let your loved ones know you are experiencing flashback. They may be able to help just by being there. You can also let them know about your triggers.
Flashbacks can cause significant distress, and it is useful to foster new ways of caring for yourself. Be patient. Developing effective ways of coping in the here and now takes time.
If you need professional support please speak with your treating doctor, call SANE's free counselling service on 1800 18 7263, or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
To connect with others who understand living with flashbacks, visit our safe and anonymous Forum community.