Get Proactive About Flashbacks and Intrusive Thoughts

What is PTSD? 

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (DSM V), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a cluster of symptoms stemming from exposure to an event that was traumatic.  In an attempt to heal, our bodies tend to re-play upsetting memories until the memory can be resolved.  PTSD can seem difficult to manage.  PTSD symptoms include things like intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.  While the key to healing PTSD requires more involved therapeutic interventions such as EMDR, there are ways to manage some of the symptoms to make life in between therapy sessions a bit easier. 

What is a Flashback?

Jane, a 28 year old abuse survivor, was out to dinner with her friends.  Suddenly, a waiter drops a tray of food and the sound carries through the restaurant.  Jane hears the clattering of dishes and silverware hitting the floor.  Her body believes she is back in the kitchen from her childhood when her parents fought and kitchenware broke.  Jane crawled under the table, and ducked her head under her arms.  When one of her friends reached out to her under the table, she flinched and apologized to her mother, reliving the childhood scene with her parents.  This is one example of what a PTSD flashback can look like.

A flashback is when a person who has experienced a traumatic event, re-experiences that event in their body.  Flashbacks can be so powerful, that the body believes that the event is happening to them in real time. 

Anticipating a Flashback

While there’s no way to be able to fully anticipate when a flashback might occur, there are some preventative measures you can take. 

Learn what your triggers are -

Scan your history with flashbacks and traumatic situations to see if you can find some themes.  In the example with Jane, she experienced trauma in the kitchen with sounds of breaking plates and glass.  You might notice that there are certain situations like restaurants, the beach, or the grocery store – that can be triggering.  There might also be objects, sounds, smells or people that can set off a flashback. 

Be Prepared -

Once you have a good idea of what your triggers are, see if there’s a way to prepare for them.  In Jane’s example – she might decide to avoid restaurants or just loud, busy ones for a while until some of her symptoms decrease.  She might sit with her back to the wall so that she can see what is happening around her in real time. 

Practice Mindfulness –

You can practice mindful awareness by checking in with yourself regularly to see what you are experiencing in your body.  Notice if any anxiety or dissociative sensations are heightened.  Some people describe their PTSD symptoms as sensations of feeling floaty, spacey, leaving their body, spacing-out, zoning out, feeling overwhelmed, high anxiety or easily startled.  If you experience any of these sensations, pay attention on a regular basis.  These sensations are warning signals that you could be easily triggered when you are in this state.  If you catch the trigger early enough, you can avoid a flashback.

What to do when you’re triggered –

Once you notice that you are in a heightened state of anxiety or dissociation, use some tools to stay in the present; in your body.   

Tools for PTSD Symptoms:

(note: don’t use any techniques or tools you find triggering)

Use the senses – taste, touch, smell, sound and sight

Drink some water slowly.  Notice the cool sensation of the glass on your lips, the water in your mouth and the sensation as it goes down your throat.

Hold an ice cube.  The cold can help you stay in your body by bringing your awareness to your hand.

Smell essential oils such as Bergamot (good for panic attacks) or Lavender (good for stress relief).

Light some incense – watch the smoke rise and coil, inhale the aroma.

Listen to music you find grounding.  Pay attention to the words, tap your feet to the rhythm. 

Play with Silly Putty or clay – notice the texture.  Pay attention to the sensation of the clay in your hands.

Distract yourself and enlist friends to help you distract –

Try to think of as many baseball teams as possible.  Take turns with friends in thinking of the names of all the teams.

Count backwards or say the alphabet backwards

Try to think of other categories such as names of movies, bands, TV shows, etc.

Ask someone else about how they’re doing

Get involved in a project like building model airplanes or re-arranging your closet.  Something tactile that also involves thought is helpful.

Read an engaging book – this uses your sight, engages the sense of touch and distracts your mind.

When you’re thinking about where to put your shoes, your brain is less likely to slip back into a trauma memory.

To learn more about PTSD treatment, contact me at