Coping with flashbacks

The past is important. It shapes who we are. But sometimes the past can be painful and memories can come to us uninvited and at inopportune moments. Here it is when it is important to learn how to cope with flashbacks and not let them take over. A quick disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and I have always found the most effective method for dealing with flashbacks was seeking professional help. But these are just some tips and tricks I have picked up in my journey.

Some thing I have found helpful when experiencing flashbacks is to ground myself. I begin describing and labelling things around me. I list scents I can smell, things I can see, sounds I can hear; anything that will be bring me back to the reality of the present. When I do this, the images of the flashback gradually fades and life continues on.

Happy place
Sometimes grounding myself doesn’t work. So I have found it helpful to counter the images of the flashback with pure positive energy. For me, I think of Sunday Island, the holiday house in the bush where I spent the happiest days of my childhood. I think of Sunday Island. I remember hiking with my brother or fishing with my Dad or bird watching with my Nanna and my Mum. And eventually the good memories start to flow over and overrun the bad ones. It is important when you select a happy place to think of that you choose one associated with all sorts of memories; a place that is so real to you you can taste it when you remember it. Only then will it be effective at countering flashbacks.

Desensitise yourself
Now this is not a strategy for the faint-hearted. I began desensitising myself under advice from my psychologist because flashbacks of the sexual abuse I experienced were ruining my sex life as an adult. I would be with my partner and suddenly be overwhelmed and think someone else entirely was in the bed with me. I would then immediately withdraw from any physical contact. My partner was of course, very understanding and nurturing, but it was interfering with my happiness. My psychologist Andre, whom I trust emphatically, guided me through learning to sit within the flashback and ride it out until it passed. This is not easy, nor is it pleasant, but it is perhaps the most empowering technique I have found to date; learning to sit in the memory and not let it define who I am and what I can do.

I am well aware that all of these techniques take a serious amount of will and determination. So don’t feel bad about yourself if you struggle with them at first. I did. But just trust the process and trust in your own strength and they can be extremely helpful. Learning to cope with my flashbacks has been extremely liberating. With that being said, as much as these tips have been great for me, talking through my trauma with a professional has also been key. Both compliment each other tremendously.

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