What comes to mind when you think of a ‘flashback’?
A war vet? A person (usually female) pushing the other away during sex? Someone diving for cover at a loud noise?
Yes, these are possible portrayals of flashbacks, but they are certainly not the only ones.
Most flashbacks are not the dramatic occurrences on which Hollywood thrives. Flashbacks and the preceding triggers occur in the small moments and the simple interactions of daily life. They are subtle, sneaky and surprising. They are often difficult to detect for the survivor and for the supporter.Flashbacks are subtle, sneaky and surprising.
If you are in a relationship with a childhood trauma survivor, whether you are aware of it, you have probably witnessed a flashback.
A trigger is an unconscious reminder of past trauma. A trigger could be a sound, scent, look, word, feeling, thought, or sensation.
A flashback is an emotionally-driven, intrusive, sensory memory from the past that feels like it’s occurring in the present. It is an overwhelming experience, which causes the brain to go on high-alert.
(Fortunately, survivors can learn to identify and manage triggers so that they don’t go into a full-blown flashback. See this article by RAINN.)
A Flashback Story
Last spring, my husband, Derek (the survivor), and I went for a walk down our country road. Spring had finally arrived and we were enjoying the warm air and the budding nature around us. As we walked, I excitedly shared some ideas about a new writing project.
The sound of crunching gravel on the road indicated a moving vehicle behind us. We moved to the side and a pickup truck passed. I kept talking.
Halfway through one of my sentences, Derek interrupted. (It wasn’t a polite interruption. It was abrupt.)
“Look at that truck.”
Yeah, okay. I squinted in the direction of the truck which was now turning into our neighbor’s driveway. What about it? And what did that have to do with our conversation?
But Derek was already headed down the road towards the truck. His pace matched that of an Olympic speed walker.
I, on the other hand, stopped. Stunned, I couldn’t move.
Over his shoulder, Derek shouted, “That quad has a pesticide tank attached. He’s going to spray the neighbor’s weeds.”
Weeds? What weeds?
Now, I had noticed the dandelions popping up everywhere. It happens every spring. But as far as I knew, weeds did not indicate an emergency.
Or did they?
For Derek, they did.
The presence of dandelions sprouting everywhere triggered an out-of-control feeling. Weeds meant extra work. Weeds meant spending money to get them sprayed. Weeds meant so much more than just weeds.
I began to walk. I passed by Derek who was in engrossed in a conversation with the weed truck driver. I feebly shouted that I was going home. I don’t think he heard me.
That, my friends, is a flashback.
Today, Derek and I are both much better at recognizing flashbacks when they occur. We have figured out how to communicate with each other about them. Derek is working on understanding and managing his triggers. I am learning how to remain calm!
For supporters, an understanding of flashbacks will help lower stress and frustration with these unbidden trauma responses. It will not only improve your relationship with a survivor but will help to establish a safe relational environment–all of which contribute to a faster and smoother recovery. Everyone wins.
To help supporters and survivors, I’ve created a short list of flashback basics. Here they are.
1. It’s about the brain.
- The brains of trauma survivors are wired for emergency.
- Flashbacks are an unconscious brain-driven trauma response.
- The survivor is not being manipulative or difficult. Sadly, people think and say these things.
2. Education and understanding about the impact of childhood trauma are essential for both survivors and supporters.
3. Help the survivor access trauma-informed and trauma-specific resources.
- Offer to go with him or her to appointments.
- Offer to pay if they can’t afford treatment.
4. Learn how to communicate with the survivor in a caring and compassionate way.
- Ask: I’m curious about your response.
- Don’t point fingers: Did you know you just had a flashback? (said with anger)
5. Supporters, learn to manage your frustration with flashbacks.
- It’s incredibly stressful when someone is highly triggered and seems to easily go into a flashback.
- Take breaks, practice self-care and have your own support system.
6. Survivors and supporters must learn to calm their own nervous systems. This is called self-regulation.
- Regulation involves healthy self-soothing, self-nurturing, and calming activities.
- Learning to regulate is important for supporters because the nervous system of the survivor will impact yours.
- Breathing, essential oils, exercise, warm baths, and more settle the body and mind.
Flashbacks are difficult, but they do not need to derail you. With understanding, self-care, and skills, supporters and survivors can work together to overcome them.