Effective Ways to Deal with Trauma Flashbacks

Some individuals who have had previous trauma may actually relive that trauma through what is called a “flashback.” During the flashback, the person may feel all the same emotions and sensory experiences as in the initial trauma. Using the information below, a trauma victim may be able to limit or stop the flashback.

How to understand and respond to a trauma flashback

man screaming in rage

Flashbacks can be a frightening experience, especially since the person may see, hear, smell, taste or feel things related to the past traumatic event that are not actually present in the current reality.

The trauma victim does not lose consciousness during a flashback but may have difficulty distinguishing here and now reality when a flashback consumes him/her.

This can be a frightening experience, especially since he/she may see, hear, smell, taste or feel things related to the past traumatic event that are not actually present in the person’s current reality. Flashbacks are an entirely normal component of the response to trauma as someone struggles to rework and integrate his/her experiences.

Babette Rothschild in Eight Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery provides what she calls the Flashback Protocol that can be used to stop or reduce the impact of a flashback. One can learn to prepare when approaching a situation in which the person anticipates a flashback by using this protocol. It can become more of an automatic response if and when a flashback begins to occur.

Here are the eight steps:

    1. Pay attention to your internal senses, naming one or more sensations you have, such as heart rate, changes in respiration, dizziness, sweaty palms, shaky legs, cold hands, or butterflies in your stomach.
    2. Identify what you are feeling emotionally; for example, “I am afraid.”
    3. State clearly to yourself that these symptoms are in reaction to a memory. You may give the flashback a title if you want, but make sure the title is no more than three words: “I am having the symptoms because I am remembering The Assault.”
    4. Shift attention to your external senses in name at least three things you can see, hear, or smell: “I could hear the lawnmower next-door…,” or, “I see the sun shining through the front window….,” or,  “I smell cinnamon from the bread in the toaster.”
    5. Affirm today’s date, including the year, month, and day.
    6. Based on the information from the last two steps, evaluate the situation you are in now as safe or dangerous.
    7. If you are actually safe, in spite of having a flashback, you can then tell yourself:“I am having a flashback and I am not in any danger…,” or, “[the title of the trauma] is not happening now (or anymore).”
    8. If you are not in safe circumstances, seek safety.
Brain state

Changing the focus can help the individual differentiate between past experiences (that the brain is flashing back to) that are causing him or her to think back in time and a present experience that redirects the brain.

Changing the focus from the trauma to the present 

We might note that this is a process that helps a person focus on sensations in the here and now. Changing the focus can help the individual differentiate between past experiences (that the brain is flashing back to) that are causing him or her to think back in time and a present experience that redirects the brain. By focusing on things like today’s date and specific external sensations, the person returns to a more cognitive state.

If you know someone who experiences flashbacks, please help this person be aware of these steps. This protocol is a way to help traumatized individuals cope with flashbacks. When the person returns to the here and now, he/she is more in a thinking place than a feeling place (brain state). By changing focus, the person will be able to cope more effectively when a flashback is triggered.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some information is taken from Applying Trauma Principles, Diane Wagenhals, 2010. Licensed materials. All rights reserved.

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