It's just a flashback - 12 grounding techniques to practice

Flashbacks can be terrifying - they can feel like we are back in that place where pain and fear ruled.

These vivid experiences can be triggered by a variety of stimuli in our environments including smelling something related to the flashback contents, seeing an item, a place, the wording used by others to us and talking about them. As awful as they are, flashbacks are in fact a way for our minds to cope and far more importantly are a way for us to regain control.

What differentiates a flashback from other memories is that a flashback is often sudden and very powerful. When a person has a flashback, the memory is often recalled involuntarily and can be so intense the person feels as if he/she is reliving the experience. In fact, with flashbacks sometimes it is difficult to recognise in the moment that what is being experienced is a memory of a something that occurred in the past, rather than something that is currently happening.

Flashbacks are in fact ways that we protect ourselves from the pain we suffer through trauma(s). We try to protect to protect ourselves from the emotional and physical horrors of abuse. In order to survive, we remain locked inside, unable to express the feelings and thoughts of that time. It is as though we put that part of us into a time warp until it comes out in the present. When that part comes out, the child in you is experiencing the past as if it were happening today.

The most common way we can deal with flashbacks is through “grounding” (and counselling). Grounding a list of simple strategies to detach from emotional pain. Essentially these distractions work by focusing outward on the external world - rather than inward toward the self. This can be done any time, any place, anywhere and no one has to know.

I wanted to share some practical ways to help sooth ourselves and bring us through a flashback.

  • Remembering that you are an ‘adult’ self-available for comfort, protection and grounding. The extreme feelings and body sensations occurring are so frightening because they are not related to the reality of the present and often seem to come from out of the blue. Tell yourself you are having a flashback – what’s happening is not happening now, you are safe. Remind yourself that the worst is over.
  • Breathe. When we get frightened we stop normal breathing. As a result our body begins to panic because we haven’t got enough oxygen. When we breathe deeply enough, a lot of the panic feeling can decrease. Breathe from your diaphragm – easier way to know how is to breathe through your nose and out through your mouth but from your stomach not your chest – practice makes perfect!
  • Be kind to yourself. Say kind statements, as if you were talking to a small child. For example “You are a good person going through a hard time. You’ll get through this." Think of the people you love, your favourite TV program, remember inspiring songs, films, words or pray. Think of things you are looking forward to. Wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or soft toy, go to bed or sit in a cupboard... anything that you can do to make yourself feel safe. Know that you are in control and the person you are today can help keep the person then safe. Say a safety statement. ‘My name is _________; I am safe right now. I am in the present, not the past. I am located in _____________ the date is _____________.
  • When out and about, stimulating your sense of sight can be the most useful way to ground yourself. Take an inventory of what you can see, where you are standing, what you are sitting on, what colour the walls are and keep repeating these. Noticing your immediate environment can help you reconnect with the present. Avoid negativity and just say what you see (no “I don’t like the wall colour").
  • Get help. You may need to be alone or you may want someone near you. Find the right process that works for you (you don’t need to stick to the 'rules' and you can change these as you need to.
  • Stimulate all your senses this can help jolt you back into the present moment. Turn on loud music (sound); hold a piece of ice so you can draw your attention to the coldness of it (touch); smell something strong like mint (smell); bite into something sharp like a lemon (taste); try and notice everything around you (sight).
  • If you are wakened by a flashback, also known as a ‘night terror’, try to write it down, then go and have something warm to drink, watch some TV, listen to music or do something else that you find relaxing. It’s often best not to try and sleep until you have been able to relax for a while.
  • If you start experiencing a flashback while having sex with your partner you can stop and take time to relax. It’s OK to take time out from the sexual side of your relationship to work through these memories if you need to. Your partner should respect your choice and support you.
  • Listing. Try to think of “types of dogs”, “jazz musicians”, “states that begin with “A”, “cars”, “TV shows”, “writers”, “sports”, “songs”, “European cities.” If you have regressed to a younger age (e.g. eight years old), you can slowly work your way back up (e.g. “I’m now nine”; “I’m now 10”; “I’m now 11”...) until you are back to your current age. Count to 10 or say the alphabet very slowly.
  • Describe something you know how to deal in great detail – “Find my car keys, decide where I am going, unlock the car door…“.
  • Physical grounding. Push your heels into the floor - literally “grounding” them! Notice the tension centered in your heels as you do this. Remind yourself that you are connected to the ground. Walk slowly, noticing each footstep, saying “left,” “right” with each step.
  • Carry a ground object in your pocket - a small object (a small rock, clay, ring, piece of cloth or yarn) that you can touch whenever you feel triggered.

Don’t blame yourself if this isn’t a quick process. Flashbacks can take a long time to come through and stop. It’s ok – keep going. Practising grounding strategies when you are not experiencing a flashback means they will be easier to implement when you are. Treat yourself – you’ve worked hard! Remember this is all a normal part of healing.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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BIRMINGHAM, West Midlands, B30
Written by Eleni Kypridemos, Snr PsychoTh | MA; MBACP Accred; PGCert; BScHons; EMDR; DBT
BIRMINGHAM, West Midlands, B30

My particular specialism is sexual abuse and religious based abuse. I have been working with survivors of sexual abuse and violence since 2008. I am honoured to have met every one.

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