4 Coping Strategies to Use When You’re Having Traumatic Flashbacks
Please note: If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Your life matters.
It is estimated that 70% of U.S. adults have experienced a least one traumatic event in their lives, and sometimes the symptoms of this can go on to develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) emphasizes, PTSD can include any of the following: flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, avoidance of people or places, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, irritability and more. It’s not uncommon for those in addiction recovery to struggle with symptoms of PTSD, as many people go on to self-medicate with substances in an attempt to wear down their symptoms. This may seem to work for a moment, but PTSD symptoms don’t go away overnight.
In 2017, Forbes Magazine explained that when flashbacks occur, the amygdala and hippocampus in our brain are affected. The amygdala (which is largely responsible for emotion regulation) takes in the messages sent from the traumatic event while the hippocampus (largely responsible for storing new memories) is activated to a weakened extent. In 2016, a writer shared their story of PTSD with The Mighty, an online platform that published shared stories of mental illness. Here is an excerpt from their story: “For most people, myself included, flashbacks are an intense re-experience of a traumatic event, which feels like it’s happening now and involves all your senses. In effect, it feels like being re-traumatized, even though you are not actually experiencing the event for real.”
Thankfully, there are several coping skills that can be used in the moment a flashback occurs:
1. Remind yourself of what is happening.
2. Breathe deeply – in through your nose, and out through your mouth.
3. Tune into your 5 senses and start recognizing what’s around you so that you can separate the past from the present. (ex. What do you see? What can you smell? What do you hear right now? What do you taste? How do you feel right now?)
4. Engage in self-care activities (such as taking a hot shower, wrapping yourself in a blanket, reading a book, going for a walk, etc.)
PTSD is a common experience for many in addiction recovery, and you’re not alone. Use your resources and practice self-care daily to ensure that you have the tools you need when these situations arise. Last but not least, seek help from others if it’s needed.
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