Flashbacks are entirely about our brain getting worried that Here and Now is actually Back There and Back Then.
What happens is, your brain gets triggered by something. You’re exposed to something sensory— a sight, a smell, a sound— or a situation that your brain knows full well is associated with something traumatic you went through.
“HEY!” your brain says. “I KNOW THIS (sight/smell/sound/whatever)! IT’S ASSOCIATED WITH BACK THERE AND BACK THEN…AND BACK THERE AND BACK THEN WAS DANGEROUS!!”
Your brain’s trying to do a good thing here. It’s trying to keep you safe. That’s kind of its most important goal: to keep you alive and away from pain and danger.
So your brain, having sensed the presence of a trigger it associates with Back There and Back Then, really, really wants you to pay attention to what it has to say— right here, right now.
Your brain really, really wants you to know that “BASED ON MY CALCULATIONS, WE MAY BE IN DANGER!”
So what it does is what anybody does when it wants you to pay attention to it right away: it barges in and demands your attention.
This is why flashbacks feel so abrupt and intrusive: because your brain is literally interrupting whatever else is going on with you in that moment, to try to get you to pay attention to it.
The thing is, your brain isn’t always great at using its words. It can’t just SAY to you, “Hey, I’m sensing the presence of something I strongly associate with danger— can we just stop and make sure we’re not Back There and Back Then, please?”
The brain’s often not quite that articulate. Plus, in fairness, it’s triggered and kind of panicky.
So instead of using words, the brain uses pictures.
Big, immersive, intrusive pictures.
That’s why, when you’re triggered, a flashback seems so all consuming, as if you were plucked from your seat in the movie theater and thrust into the movie itself.
Your brain is literally doing everything it can to arrest your attention and remind you of why we want to avoid anything associated with Back There and Back Then.
It’s essentially saying to you: “HEY, REMEMBER THIS? REMEMBER HOW SCARY AND OVERWHELMING IT WAS? THIS IS WHY WE WANT TO AVOID THIS THING, YOU KNOW?”
Again: it’s important to remember that your brain is trying to help here. It really is.
So what are the specific skills necessary to get out of a flashback once it’s been triggered?
Your mileage may vary, but for most people it’s a combination of grounding, emotional focus shift, and self talk.
Grounding is using your senses to reestablish contact with the present moment. What this does is reorient you to time and place, so you’re not swept away in the movie your brain is trying to stick you in the middle of.
The easiest way to get grounded is to make sure your feet are on the floor; make sure your eyes are open; and then look around you, identifying three things you can see, three things you can hear, and three things you can physically feel.
Emotional focus shift is a skill wherein you use an emotionally-charged tool to introduce a competing emotion to the fear and panic that your brain is experiencing. Your nervous system has trouble processing two completely different emotional states at once, so you’re trying to stoke an emotion— even a little bit— that can compete for bandwidth in your brain with the fear and panic.
This can be accomplished by listening to a song (I have my patients create emergency playlists for just this kind of thing); reciting song lyrics; reciting or reading quotes that are meaningful to you; looking at pictures of your kids; or quickly accessing an emotionally charged memory (like your wedding, your graduation, your Confirmation, or another occasion that evokes a strong emotional response).
Self talk is exactly what it sounds like. You’re trying to reassure your brain that you are not Back There, Back Then. Your brain literally needs to be convinced, in order to let go of the flashback.
What this looks like on a practical level is you building the case that you are not Back There, Back Then. It may sound strange, but you start at the beginning, and calmly, patiently explain to yourself how you know you are Here and Now.
You observe what’s different between Here and Now and Back There, Back Then. You remind yourself of who is in your life now, that wasn’t then. You remind yourself of the year. You remind yourself of where you physically are. You can even go so far as to reference specific pieces of clothing or jewelry you have on now, that you didn’t even own then.
Grounding, emotional focus shift, and self-talk are three on the ground skills to manage flashbacks.
Lowering your vulnerability to flashbacks is the work of longer term therapy. It can’t be rushed, and it requires you to develop multiple skills and interrupt multiple patterns.
But for starters: try those three skills and their associated tools.
Trying to use any skill is better than surrendering to using no skills.
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