PTSD often causes physical symptoms in people due to a release of hormones. People with PTSD will often keep releasing these hormones even when no longer in danger as ‘fight or flight’ is the natural learnt response. Recently I explained the process of flashbacks to colleagues, and thought it might be worth writing about from first-hand knowledge. In essence, flashbacks are an experience in which one relives a traumatic event and feels as though it is happening at that moment; they're often a result of PTSD, which can be a unique experience to each person that experiences it. When I endured flashbacks, my body would become rigid and I would feel like I was back in that awful place from my past. They would usually be brief but I believe that for some people they can persist for hours or even days. Overall, the flashbacks felt horrible and I often felt so alone and helpless during those episodes. Thankfully I had a great therapist who helped me to cope with them and eventually I guess my mind overpowered them and they stopped completely. One aid that my counsellor gave me was a Flashback Halting Protocol. I would refer to it after having a flashback, first moving to a safe place and then talking myself through the points in order to ground myself. Here is a copy of that useful protocol:
Flashback halting protocol
- “Right now I am feeling ______ (Name the emotion here — usually fear)
- And I am sensing in my body _____________ (Name your body sensations — at least three, if you can.)
- Because I am remembering ________ (Name the trauma or event if you can — just the name, no details!)
- At the same time, I am looking around where I am now in __________ (name the current year, month, day)
- Here, ________ (Name where you are right now)
- And I can see ___________ (Name things you can see right now, in the room you’re in)
- And so I know _________ (Name the trauma again, by title only)
- Is not happening now/is not happening anymore.”
Although flashbacks often come in the form of visual images, they can also be triggered by a sound or smell connected to the trauma or emotions that were once felt, which can involve physical sensations. It may also be the case that certain people or places trigger flashbacks. This was unfortunately my experience, which made it a very difficult, painful time for me as the triggering person was actually a loved one.
As a result of PTSD, I also had horrible nightmares that would affect me for days. In addition, I experienced intrusive thoughts that affected my daily life and work, and I was unable to sleep well. One can imagine that all of these factors result in a very draining ordeal, and one that I would not wish on anyone. In order to fight all of these things, I had to find ways to soothe and distract myself. Thankfully I have always been creative so dancing, yoga and poetry helped me to release the pent up anger I started to feel. But I have a lot of appreciation for the therapeutic nature of music and the way that it really helped me during those awful times. When I couldn’t control the intrusive thoughts that would play like a broken record in my mind, I remember I would often listen to the same song over and over again. Perhaps I was trying to override the horrible thoughts with positive lyrics and music. Actually, I am truly thankful to the artist David Gray as I listened to him every day; there is something about the power in his voice that lifted me up and made me believe I could get better.
I hope that these descriptions and ways to help oneself may be of assistance to anyone who may be suffering. My counsellor once said to me, ‘you’re not alone’ and I would like to now pass on the same sentiment to others in need.