Mental Health Awareness Week – What are flashbacks?

Claire Austin, CounsellorIt’s Mental Health Awareness Week 10 – 16 May 2021.  In this blog, Claire Austin, one of our amazing Counsellors at our Young People’s Service, gives us more insight into flashbacks.

We hear the term “flashbacks” mentioned so easily sometimes or being “triggered.”  A flashback is something that comes from trauma, something that doesn’t feel nice.  When a person who experiences this says they are “triggered” they literally mean a thing has happened or been said that gives them a flashback.

But what is a flashback and how do we identify what it feels like for us?

My work mainly focuses on working with young people impacted by sexual and domestic violence.  My experience of flashbacks comes from my own lived experience and that of what young people share.

A flashback is commonly identified as a memory from a past trauma that feels as if it is taking place in that current moment.  Feeling as if the traumatic experience is happening again.

What I hear so often is how flashbacks occur in so many forms but it’s not always understood why or even that it’s a flashback occurring.  Someone can feel the emotions again even if they don’t “see” the memory in their mind, or they may feel some of the physical sensations again and not know why.

In counselling, there are many different ways to work with flashbacks, the best being within a therapeutic space with your counsellor.  By first understanding the experience is a flashback, it can be a great start to unpicking the power it has and how we learn to start controlling it.

When a traumatic experience occurs all our senses are ignited, our brain kicks into survival mode and we do what we can at that time to stay alive.  What happens next is our memory starts to hold onto the experience through our senses and starts to store it in different places.  Our flashbacks occur when these areas become heightened after the experience – touch, smell, taste, image, colour, places – these can all be factors that heighten these stored senses and cause the image to ‘replay’ in our mind.  It doesn’t always make sense, but your brain is kicking back into these negative associations and making you feel unsafe and scared.  It’s also common for this to happen through our dreams, someone can relive the experience in the dream and it feels even more like it doesn’t make sense.  Working with dreams feels important for me, it’s a huge part of our processing to explore and attempt to make sense of our dreams.  This can be another huge step in taking control of the links our subconscious makes.

There are many ways to work with flashbacks, but a nice place to start is with our deep breaths – breathing is something that is always in our control.  There’s no special technique to this, just in and out through the nose, I call it an equal breath.

Breathe in 1…2…3 and breathe out 1…2…3. 

Our breath is a grounding force and by linking into that we can focus our mind and body; it also sends signals to the brain that we are safe.  Concentrate on the breath and breathe in and out until you feel calmer.

Tapping is also a great way to connect with our body, use alternate taps on the knees and thinking of somewhere that makes you happy and safe.  You can bring your breath in again but just do what feels manageable to you at that time.  Lastly, journaling, writing or drawing down those flashbacks and dreams can give you a lot of power over the flashback.  When it is there in front of you, you decide what happens, or how the story goes.  You don’t need to keep them if you don’t wish – rip them up or throw them away after you have put them on paper.  The process of ‘dumping’ it onto paper can be therapeutic and gets it out of your brain and off the carousel that’s repeating again and again.

Flashbacks are powerful and scary and our aim is to take the power out of them. Talking about them is a huge help, but understanding what they are, allows you to take control and start the process of healing.