Flashbacks are awful. But they are also an opportunity to get better.

There is a Zen saying that a master is never attacked, rather, he is invited to dance. A flashback is your invitation. You have just been dragged out onto the dance floor, sweetheart, so put your dancing shoes on.

Each time you are triggered, you have the chance to respond from a stronger position than the last time. If the last time you reached for the Xanax and called your therapist, maybe this time you can skip the drug and go straight to the phone call. If last time you went home and hid under the bed covers for 2 days, this time, maybe you only need a couple of hours to get past the fear. You are stronger. Better prepared.

Being prepared for a flashback doesn’t mean you won’t freak out. It means you know how to help yourself heal.

Here’s What Works for Me

I have to go through four stages: fear, anxiety, self-recrimination, and anger. Once I get to my anger, then I have lots of energy to work with, energy to help me get better and stronger.

Fear: I start out terrified, mind-numbing terrified. So I run for my support group. This doesn’t have to be a formal group, although if you are in group therapy right now, you may find that group the best place to start. For me, it is the people close to me, the ones I can count on for a hug and emotional support. This includes my dog. I go for hugs first. I cuddle with my dog in front of the fireplace until the cold fear passes. Then I seek out my human friends to verbally reassure me. I know it is important to tell someone. They accept my fears. They sympathize, tell me I am not crazy, that my pain matters.

Anxiety: I start re-thinking my response. And re-thinking. I talk to my friends, thinking out loud. When I see their eyes glazing over and they start to fidget, I know I have crossed that line into obsessing and it is time to stop. I change the subject, ask them a question, and see the relief in their eyes. I know they would have kept on listening because they care about me. But I also know it is better for both of us if I let go of it.

Self-recrimination: Once I get past the woulda coulda shoulda obsessing, I start to feel bad about myself. I feel weak for being vulnerable to that trigger. I hate that I can still be knocked down by something I thought I had left behind me. I am wasting my own valuable time and my friends’ goodwill with things that I should be over. Guilt and self-loathing swirl in my gut. I only know one cure for that, laughter.

I pop in an old movie or listen to a new stand-up comedian. I fight the flashback with laughter. and magic happens. I lose those sad, exhausting feelings and when I look up, the only emotion left around is my good friend: anger.

Anger: Anger is looking good. She offers her energy so I can pick myself and move forward again. I figure out what I can learn from this flashback, what I need to let go of, who I need to forgive. Anger helps me heal. I have the energy to build a new life.

Ending the Dance

As time goes on, I find I run through the cycle quicker. Instead of weeks, now it takes days. Soon I hope it will be hours. One day, I won’t be triggered at all. The fear will be gone, and I will acknowledge my former dance partner with a nod and nothing more. I won’t have to dance, because I won’t feel attacked.

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Suzanne Grosser

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