TRIGGER WARNING ♥ Cozy Blankets and Coffee Needed ♥
(This content deals with PTSD flashbacks and childhood sexual abuse).
It was a bitter November night in 2014 when I found my 3-year-old self in the dark, beneath the surface, shaking in terror.
I was curled up in my bed reading the book, The Courage to Heal when, suddenly, my body flung into an upright position.
My head and shoulders collapsed into my lap, and an unrecognizable cry wailed from deep inside my stomach. The intensity and the sound belonged to a small child, not to a grown woman reading a book.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps tiptoe down the hallway toward my bedroom.
My body stiffened in response.
I reminded myself that I lived alone, that there were no footsteps inside my home. My body trembled.
An image of my Grandma’s hallway snapped into my minds-eye; it was in her old trailer, my childhood home. The footsteps travelled into my room and stopped beside my bed. I took notice of my bulging and unblinking eyes.
Whispers prickled my right ear, but no words were left for me. I became aware of the shocking sight of my legs convulsing violently.
The rest of my body trembled and coiled into the fetal position. There is no one here, the voice in my head repeated. There is no one here, but me. I forced myself to focus on my grown-up bedroom, honing in on the perfume bottles that lined my dresser — but I couldn’t soften the fear.
I was her, just three years old; little and scared, shaking in my bed.
My body shivered, stiff and tight, eyes wide, locked inside a cage of terror and fright.
PTSD flashbacks: the ghost inside
In the days and nights that followed, I was too scared to leave home. I stayed in bed, raw inside like I had been gutted and chewed up. I was thirty-one years old, but I felt like I was three. Frantic for safety and comfort, I clung to an old teddy bear and began searching the internet for others like me. I searched for stories. I searched for answers – for anything!
But, it would take months, a counsellor, and a collection of books to understand what had happened that night fully – that the strange and horrifying experience had been a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a flashback –more specifically, a procedural traumatic memory.
And so, today, I’m sharing what I’ve learned, in case others find themselves alone and afraid clinging to the internet for comfort and clarity.
What is a PTSD flashback?
Like a timeless horror show, PTSD flashbacks will snap you back in time, to a traumatic moment. Procedural memory flashbacks, also known as body memories, are your learned motor skills like learning to walk; they are also your fight-or-flight survival responses. Peter Levine, a pioneer in the field of trauma, points out that memory becomes trapped as a procedural traumatic memory when an individual is unable to respond to a threat using their fight-or-flight response, as is often the case of childhood sexual abuse. In other words, when the body is unable to protect itself, it will shut down; thus, trapping the traumatic memory until the body is finally able to complete the response: fight-or-flee.
According to Dr. Peter Levine, the nervous system cannot differentiate between these procedural traumatic memory sensations and the original trauma. Specifically, your body and your nervous system are experiencing past feelings and sensations as if the abuse was happening at that very moment. During a PTSD flashback, you are literally reliving the trauma.
Even more, you are reliving the painfully overwhelming experience, whether you consciously remember it or not, for our bodies remember trauma even when our minds long forgot.
How to cope with PTSD flashbacks
Often, people aren’t haunted by flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse until well into adulthood. For years, the trauma remains frozen –stuck beneath the surface, waiting to be triggered. PTSD flashbacks can be triggered at any time and include any, or all of the following; sound, smell, taste, touch, visuals, and/or intense emotions. If your memories are surfacing, it’s time to turn around and face them, for they will keep attacking until you do. But first, you need to feel safe, or you risk retraumatizing yourself.
Liz Prette, a clinical counsellor, says to stay with the body during a flashback in order to file it away as a past memory, rather than a current threat. For instance, you don’t want to escape by sleeping, watching tv, drinking, or any other form of escape you run toward. To process the trauma, we must stay in our body and feel the terror and panic. But because this process can retraumatize you, it’s critical to seek help and prepare yourself.
Seeking the support of a licensed therapist who specializes in trauma is ideal, especially one who understands PTSD flashbacks. However, if therapy is not an option, I urge you to invest time into preparing yourself, so you are better equipped the next time you experience dissociation or traumatic flashbacks.
How to prepare yourself for PTSD flashbacks
To prepare yourself, you must first learn how to recognize your emotions. You can learn how to do this by paying attention to your body sensations. For example, tightness in your chest, sickness in your stomach, or the rapid beating of your heart.
By bringing awareness to your body sensations, you will begin to feel your feelings, and over time, develop the capacity to cope with overwhelming feelings of terror, helplessness, and panic. It’s also essential to create a safe zone. Or, at the very least, keep a couple of comfort items to reach for when in distress. I keep a plush, white blanket and a white teddy bear. I also use some grounding techniques to help ground myself in the present during flashbacks.
7 essential techniques that help during a PTSD flashback
1. Talk to yourself. Bring yourself back to the present by repeating: I am safe now. No one here can hurt me
2. Scan your surroundings. Doing this will help bring your attention to your present reality. Take note of colours, shapes, and textures. Hone in on the details of your belongings. Hold these items in your hand, and describe them out loud.
3. Stroke your cat or dog. Animals are comforting and can provide a sense of safety and security. They will also help to bring you back to the here and now.
4. Place your feet firmly on the floor. Feel the solid floor beneath your feet and dig your toes into the carpet. This will help you to reconnect your body to the present moment.
5. Breathe. Keep your eyes open and focus on your surroundings while you place your hand on your belly. Take in a deep breath and feel your stomach fill with air. Slowly exhale and make sure your exhale is twice as long as your inhale — this helps with releasing.
6. Smell lavender. Keep a lavender essential oil on hand and take a long whiff whenever you begin to feel traumatic memory sensations. The scent of lavender will calm you and keep you in the present moment.
7. Reach out to someone you trust. You don’t need to go through this alone. If you aren’t comfortable talking about your experience, you can talk about nothing — talk about the weather.
The key is to focus on calming yourself and staying present. Your body thinks the traumatic experience is happening right now, so talk to yourself, talk to your body, speak to the child inside of you — And tell your child-self that it’s over — you are safe now.
How to cope after experiencing a flashback
Be gentle with yourself. You’ve just literally relived a traumatizing experience. You need to rest and do nice things for yourself, such as a bubble bath, soothing music, or a funny movie.
Comfort yourself with a cozy blanket and a hot drink. Better yet, bring that cozy blanket and hot drink over to the Girl Talk & Coffee community for some comfort and support! Or talk to a friend or family member who you trust –someone who will not be scared by your terror.
If you’re not in the mood to reach out to others, you could journal about your experience.
Finally, avoid telling yourself that this is not real (like I did) because it was real. According to Liz Prette, your child-self needs to be validated and soothed. Instead, you could say: “what happened was real, and it was scary. But we are okay now. We are safe.” Next, show your child-self around your home, touch your belongings, pour a glass of water, show her the safe place you live in today.
When I first started suffering from flashbacks, I felt like my life was over.
And in many ways, it was.
My life did unravel –collapsed and stripped bare of the fluff of life, I saw only two options: die by suicide or stand up.
In February of 2018, after four years of being attacked by PTSD flashbacks, I stood up. For the first time, I had a different response: I did not collapse into a blackout. Initially, I responded to the sounds of footsteps and whispers prickling my ear with the same helpless terror: whimpering and convulsing in the fetal position. But then, suddenly, I heard Liz Prette’s voice reminding me to breathe. Next, I heard Peter Levine instructing me to hit and push —defend yourself! Yes, I was sobbing, shaking, and petrified, but I pushed the air like I was shoving my childhood stepfather off of me.
A new me had emerged. Something deep within had shifted, and I believe it was a combination of grounding techniques and healing practices that allowed me to breathe through the terror and act out a different response –a fight response!
If you’d like to learn more about these healing practices, I expand on this article in my free eBook, The Ghost Inside.
In the end, I hope you know that you are not alone. If you ever find yourself feeling isolated with your trauma, please grab a cozy blanket, pour yourself a hot cup of coffee and join the Girl Talk and Coffee community, where I will always meet you with compassion, comfort, and support.
P.S., please feel free to share your go-to strategies for coping with flashbacks below and bookmark this page for fast access should you find yourself struggling!
Feature Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy
Second Photo by Hailey Kean