Flashbacks can be terrifying – they can feel like we are back in that place where pain and fear ruled.
Flashbacks can be triggered by almost anything: smells; seeing an item or an image on television; being in a place; the words someone else uses. As awful as they are, flashbacks are in fact a way for our minds to cope and, far more importantly, are a way for us to regain control.
What differentiates a flashback from other memories is that a flashback is often sudden and very powerful. When a person has a flashback, the memory is recalled involuntarily and can be so intense the person feels as if they are reliving the experience. In fact, with flashbacks sometimes it is difficult to recognise in the moment that what is being experienced is a memory of a something that occurred in the past, rather than something that is currently happening.
When we’re in the middle of an anxiety attack or flashback, the control panel of our frontal lobe goes out the window. It feels impossible to focus or think clearly about anything and sometimes our thoughts come so quickly and jumbled we can’t keep track of them. Things may seem like they are happening around us in a blur. Sometimes we feel paralyzed or frozen, unable to move or say or do anything. Sometimes you feel like you are on the edge of a cliff, perpetually about to fall and tumble endlessly.
Grounding is a tool I was given many years ago by a counselor to help in just this kind of situation and it is one I have used many times since, in just about any situation or place. Grounding helps to bring my mind and body back to the present moment, allowing space for my mind to slow down and to feel a bit calmer – or at least enough to be able to figure out what to do next and how to deal with this intense emotion.
There are many different grounding techniques but I wanted to list a few of the ones that have worked for me:
- Take a shower or bath. The key with this is to focus on the sensations you experience as you are in the shower or bath. Notice the feel of the water on your skin, the detail of the taps, the sensation and smells of the shampoos and shower gels. Let each sensation keep you in that moment.
- Find a grounding object to keep with you. For the longest time, I kept a 20p piece in the pocket of my favourite coat. I would feel overwhelmed in the crowded trains and subways of my commute and would rub the coin between my fingers when I felt that panic start to set in. I knew every texture and corner of the coin – my fingers knew every detail.
Grounding with your 5 senses:
- Find a familiar scent (perfume, soap, lotion, tea, essential oil.) and make a routine of smelling it in the morning, before bed, or another routine part of your day. For me, it is the smell of Vicks VapoRub that brought peace and grounding. This is a comforting smell from my childhood and when I was in the middle of a bout of stress or anxiety-related insomnia, it would calm me and help me sleep.
- Put on your favorite item of clothing– a pair of fluffy socks, a favorite sweater, a soft t-shirt. Notice the texture, the color, the way it smells. You can also find a favorite blanket or pillow and do the same. For the longest time, my ex-boyfriend’s sweater lived under my pillow on my bed and helped to ground me on my darker nights. Now, it is a blanket-like tartan scarf that keeps me grounded in its smell and texture.
- Hold ice in the palms of your hands and squeeze it tight. This helped me in some of my more intense and immediate panics – the feeling of the freezing cold ice between your hands does not allow for your mind to drift to other places and keeps you in the present.
Use your body:
- Literally ground yourself. Lay on the floor. Notice each part of your body where the floor touches you, and focus on that sensation, the pressure, the texture, the temperature. Press your body down onto the ground. I also found that walking on the ground or grass in my bare feet helped to focus and ground me – feeling the sensations and solid earth under my feet.
- MOVE! Wiggle your toes, paying attention to the sensation as you move each one. See which toes you can move independently of the others. Do the same with your fingers, feeling the stretch in your muscles, the tension and relaxation as you move.
- Rhythm. Tap your feet on the floor, find an object to make a soft sound, tap your fingers on the table or lightly tap a glass or other surface until you find a pleasant sound, then create a rhythm and repeat it, staying focused on the beginning and end of each sound you create.
- Do an activity that requires engaging your hands or whole body. Go out into your garden and pull weeds. Go for a run, engage with the earth. Do yoga.
Go for long walks,
indulge in hot baths,
Question your assumptions,
be kind to yourself,
live for the moment,
loosen up, scream,
curse the world,
count your blessings,
Just let go,
Distract your brain:
- Count by 7s, as high as you can.
- Play the ‘guess their occupation’ game. Look at people around you and try to guess their jobs or occupations, or where they are going.
- Play the categories game with yourself–choose a category like colours, animals, foods, and try to name at least 10 things in that category.
- Practise big breathing – place one hand on your stomach, and the other on your chest. Breathe slowly and deeply into your belly, trying to raise your hand like you are filling up a balloon or beach ball with air. Slowly breathe out, feeling the hand on your stomach lower like the balloon or ball is deflating.
- 4 -7- 8 breathing: Breathe in slowly, counting to 4 seconds while you inhale. Then, hold your breath for 7 seconds. Finally, breathe out slowly and softly, counting 8 seconds while you exhale. Repeat as many times as feels comfortable.
Grounding is not about making the emotion go away or detaching from your experience; it is about tolerating the experience and emotions while staying present in your body.
Be kind to yourself, dear – to our innocent follies.
Forget any sounds or touch you knew that did not help you dance.
You will come to see that all evolves us.
— With thanks to The Growlery