Managing Flashbacks

When I first started having flashbacks, I thought I had been hit by a mental and emotional Mack truck. It took several years of practice to get a handle on them and to learn how to deal with them. I’d like to share some of this hard-earned experience with you.

It helped to realize that different parts of my memories are stored in different parts of my brain. So the smells might come back, or the emotions, or the sights, but not everything at once. Or at least not usually.

When every sense, every detail comes back at once, the challenge is to keep one foot, or at least one toe, in the present so that I know it’s a flashback as it’s happening. Otherwise, I’m afraid I may find out later that I’ve acted in some way that made sense in the context of the flashback, but was harmful or weird in the present-life context.

It helps to say things out loud, if I can. “This is a flashback. Watch it and see how much you can remember.” “This is my apartment. The year is 2013.” “I am remembering something horrible that happened when I was a kid.” The more aware I am that the past is intruding into the present, the easier it is to ride through the flashback.

If I write about it, or better yet, tell somebody, the flashback moves from my unconscious to the conscious part of my mind. It transforms into a memory. It may take several tellings to complete this transformation, but eventually it happens and I no longer flash back to the same incident. The longest it ever took was three months. I thought that was plenty long enough!

When only one component returns, it’s not always clear whether it’s a flashback or a present-day occurrence. I try to be logical: “Is it really possible for my hands to smell of ‘that’ when I haven’t touched ‘that’ for two years? No. It’s got to be a flashback.” If I can’t figure it out myself, I can ask somebody for a reality check. “Do you smell something burning?”

The hardest “partial” flashbacks for me are body memories and emotions. With body memories, I often can’t figure out if I need medical attention or a journaling session. I’ve worked out a couple of general guidelines by now. If I can bring it on by thinking of my abuse or if it goes away when I talk about it, it’s probably a body memory. If I run through a list of the things I know are wrong with me, and the body feeling fits, then it’s probably a present condition, like arthritis.

Emotional flashbacks are much, much, harder to sort out. I have a life-long habit of feeling an emotion and then searching around for a likely explanation. That’s because I never knew I was having emotional flashbacks and so I just assumed it must be something or somebody in my environment that precipitated my feelings. Now I know that sometimes it’s a flashback and sometimes it isn’t, but darned if I can tell the difference lots of the time.

Reality checks come in handy here, too. I ask friends or my therapist if I seem to be over-reacting. (Over-reacting simply means that you had to under-react to something in the past, stuffed the emotions, and are now feeling both sets of emotions.)

Sometimes I can change my life so it’s clear when I’m having a flashback. For example, if I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, I have no reason to feel guilty, and all that guilt is from the past. Simple! (But not always easy to do.)

Most of the time it’s not that clear-cut, unfortunately. I can’t eliminate anger or fear from my life. I have to remember that the source of my emotion can be both the past and the present. If I see somebody threatening on the street, I’m appropriately afraid, but I’m also feeling fear that I have suppressed for years and years. It’s a flashback and not a flashback, both at the same time.

The more I understand my flashbacks, the easier they are to put up with. I hope some of my thoughts help you as you try to understand and work with yours.